Ross Douthat disagrees with Stanley Fish and me, but the article AKMA linked to in his comment on my first Fish post suggests that the data may be on our side:
Professors rated highly by their students tended to yield better results for students in their own classes, but the same students did worse in subsequent classes. The implication: highly rated professors actually taught students less, on average, than less popular profs.Meanwhile, professors with higher academic rank, teaching experience and educational experience — what you might call “input measures” for performance — showed the reverse trend. Their students tended to do worse in that professor’s course, but better in subsequent courses. Presumably, they were learning more.That conclusion invites another: students are, in essence, rewarding professors who award higher grades by giving them high ratings, and punishing professors who attempt to teach material in more depth by rating them poorly.
I think that this comment:
Professors rated highly by their students tended to yield better results for students in their own classes, but the same students did worse in subsequent classes. The implication: highly rated professors actually taught students less, on average, than less popular profs.
may say more about the variant standards of evaluation or expectation between profs and classes. I could teach my students a great deal about writing and research in a first-year course and they could encounter a prof in an advanced course or a different dept. who has no idea what is taught in first year writing and therefore no sense of what kinds of assignments are possible for these students to do or to grow into. It's very hard to get faculty across a dept., let alone across disciplines, to agree on assessment criteria. And maybe that is as it should be. But we at least need to know between courses what expectations some of our colleagues have.
b) the student herself can have a skewed view of how professors "shoulwd teach." Many students choose only to work within her preferred or intuitive "learning style" and never really give another sort of instructor a chance. This, I think, more than anything leads to mediocre student evaluations, and that is what needs to be corrected for. If we had students name their expectations, and we named ours, explicitly and early on (and repeatedly) I think we'd be surprised at how we might change one another's sense of what's going on in a given class.
Part of the problem is that there are a whole lot of different kinds of teaching going on at a university, some of which are much easier to evaluate than others.
Unfortunately, the most important kinds of teaching are the hardest to evaluate. You can use testing to see if the students taking remedial math or writing have learned how to do trigonometry or write a coherent paragraph.
But the kinds of teaching Fish is talking about (or Marc Bousquet's attempts to teach students to do pose a research question based on a literature review) are really hard to evaluate. It's not just that a student may not realize the importance of what the professor is teaching. It's that the professors themselves may have no good way of determining how effective they are at helping students think in a new way.
That said I think some of the more labor-intensive methods of evaluation — having chairs and colleagues observe a professor and reading written comments from students — can do a pretty good job of figuring out which professors are teaching well (assuming an ideal world in which chairs could make such evaluations solely on the professor's merits without any departmental politics clouding the issue). Averaging scores from multiple choice tests seems pretty worthless to me, but reading written comments you can at least get some idea of how well grounded the student's opinions are.
Another thing missing from Fish's discussion of this issue is the shameful extent to which students judge female professors on their appearance. Men face some of that as well (the Professor of the Year at one college I know of has been a (different) attractive, charismatic young man every year for a decade), but it's nothing like what the women have to deal with.
At my old school students rated teachers in, as I recall, five or six fields giving them a number score between 1 and 5. There were so many requirements and scheduling issues that the evaluations didn't really factor in that much for profs in the 3-5 range.
The main use of the evaluations was to make sure you weren't signing up for a class taught by a prof that was near unanimously disliked with a score in the one point something range.
It seems reasonable to suggest that the profs on the extreme bottom of the rating system probably weren't sowing great seeds of knowledge that their students would come to treasure 20 years hence.
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