A number of responses to my column about the education I received at Classical High (a public school in Providence, RI) rehearsed a story of late-flowering gratitude after an earlier period of frustration and resentment. “I had a high school (or a college) experience like yours,” the poster typically said, “and I hated it and complained all the time about the homework, the demands and the discipline; but now I am so pleased that I stayed the course and acquired skills that have served me well throughout my entire life.”Now suppose those who wrote in to me had been asked when they were young if they were satisfied with the instruction they were receiving? Were they getting their money’s worth? Would they recommend the renewal of their teachers’ contracts? I suspect the answers would have been “no,” “no” and “no,” and if their answers had been taken seriously and the curriculum they felt oppressed by had been altered accordingly, they would not have had the rich intellectual lives they now happily report, or acquired some of the skills that have stood them in good stead all these years. . . .“Deferred judgment” or “judgment in the fullness of time” seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching.And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning.
This is exactly right. I have often argued over the years that if we must have such evaluations, students should be asked for their responses to a course at least one semester after completing it. Instead, they are asked for their judgments near the end of a semester, when they are probably busier and more stressed than at any other time, and when they haven’t completed their final work for the class or received their final evaluations. It’s a perfect recipe for useless commentary.By the way, colleagues typically respond to my suggestion by arguing that if students have to wait a semester before evaluating courses, they won’t even remember what kind of experience they had. I counter, “If true, wouldn’t that be worth knowing?”