Teaching Evaluations

A couple of days ago I googled myself.  I do this a few times a year to see what shows up.

You (and I) will be happy to know that several of my Bloggers Crew posts were in the first threee pages (which is as far as I read).  The usual Susquehanna websites and conference papers appeared.  One item that was particularly interesting was the teacher evaluations available online.

University-conducted teaching evaluations are generally considered confidential.  (Though I do know of at least one university where they have a party and professors share their most entertaining comments).  Students answer anonymously a series of questions about the instructor's techniques, preparation,  fairness, and overall quality.  Classroom management, the textbooks, the physical classroom, are often also covered.  The questions are answered with 5 or 7 point Likert scales.  At the end there is an area set aside for written comments.  Each open-ended question gets about half a page of space for responses.  Professors are given instructions to have a student administer evaluations and leave the room.  We recommend not administering evaluations within one week before or after a test to avoid times of high emotion.   Generally, between 80% and 85% of my students fill out these evaluations.

Several weeks after grades are due, the professor and his/her supervirsor, the Dean, and the Provost receive a brief report of the numerical answers with comparable data for the department, the university, and the set of schools using that specific evaluation instrument.  Written comments are given only to the professor.  At some schools those comments are transcribed to reduce the chance that the professor will recognize a particular student's answer. 

It's not a perfect system, but let me compare it with the online evaluation systems.

The system on which I will focus (others are quite similar) has four areas.  There are three headings  "overall quality", "easiness", "hot", and a space for written comments.  The quality and easiness areas are 5 point likert scales.  The professor is either hot or not.  Already you begin to see how useful these online evaluations are.  Only one of the three questions is really relevant to the quality of the teacher.  

Other reasons they aren't worth much are seen only when you click on a particular professor.  The number of students who fill out these evaluations is very low. The limited space provided for open-ended questions encourages off the cuff responses rather than thoughtful or in-depth ones.

Other shortcomings become apparent only if you have some inside information.  Let me share a bit.

I teach both lower (B-school students from any major must take these courses) and upper level (accounting majors only) courses.  In my eight years at SU I've taught about 1900 students.  Between 15% and 20% were accounting majors.  Nine students have evaluated me.  A colleague who teaches only upper level courses--about 200 students over the past eight years-- has exactly one rating.  A third colleague (new last year, teaches only lower level courses, about 150 total students and 20 accounting majors) has five.   

What is there to learn from my unscientific perusal of this website?  Not so much about the teacher, I think, as the student who responds and the classes that are being taught.

(1) It's likely that most evaluations come from disgruntled students.  Each of us has much lower evaluations online than from the classroom.  The written comments were, with few exceptions, negative.  They often contained uncomplimentary slang.

(2) The students who  respond may be underachievers who hope to get by with minimal effort and learning.  For example,  a complaint that a professor was unwilling to round a grade from 69 to 70, or not giving many As.  Note:  At Susquehanna's SWSB, with a 69 (D) the student must retake the course; a 70 (C-) suffices to go forward. 

(3) The students who respond may be frustrated by rules they hoped to skirt.   For example, a comment indicated that I had not helped a student with a scheduling problem.  Though I don't know exactly what that problem was, I did recently refuse tthree requests.  I did not waive prerequisites for a student who changed majors during his senior year and wanted to still graduate "on time".   I did refuse to allow inappropriate substitutions so a student could do a non-business study abroad program and still graduate in four years.   I did refuse to ask ask a faculty member to offer a marginal student Interrmediate on an independent study basis while the professor was abroad so the student could repeat the course and still "graduate early."  On the other hand, I did approve an independent study for an excellent student who wanted to add a second major.   I did over-ride the size limits of another professor so a student who lacked a course through no fault of his own could graduate "on time."  I frequently teach above my own class size limits to allow space for students who need to repeat the class.  You can decide whether you find these judgment calls appropriate.

(4) Professors who teach classes that are required by non-majors have more responses than those who teach only majors.  But the ratings do not appear any more reliable.  Based on the few internal records to which I have access,  there is a larger fall-off between classroom and online ratings. 

So, what can you do if you or your child need to choose among teachers for a course?  Online sources are not informative because they don't ask good questions, few students respond, and those that do are likely biased in a negative direction.  University sources are better (though still not perfect) but are confidential. 

I recommend that you talk with other students, especially those whose interests and learning style match yours.  The student might also ask permission to observe a classroom in session.  The professor has the right to say no, but many of us would agree.  After all, both you and the teacher will benefit by your being in the right class.

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Barbara McElroy is Associate Professor of Accounting and Head of the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA.  Before beginning a career in academe, Barbara worked in both public and private accounting settings, and owned several businesses.  She is particularly interested in the interaction of accounting and public policy.  Barbara will discuss current events with the interest of students, faculty, and practicing professionals in mind.

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