The Value of Teacher Evaluations and Student Ratings

November 5, 2021

Student ratings are a fundamental element of staff evaluation processes at many educational institutions. The ability to get direct feedback from students is important to administrators. The data these ratings provide can be an excellent tool for improving education and helping an institution grow.

But student evaluations aren’t perfect. Many administrators are frustrated by the limitations of these evaluations. Similarly, instructors can feel targeted by the feedback students provide. Understanding the intended purpose and the controversy around student evaluations can help you make the most of them.

Purpose of Student Ratings

No one has the same perspective on a teacher’s efficacy as the students learning from them. As helpful as administrator evaluations can be for an educator, they simply don’t offer the same insights as student evals. Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are intended to help educators and administrators understand what students like, dislike, and need.

Most student evaluations will capture the student’s opinions and quantitative information about how they rate the educator and course. With this data, student ratings are supposed to accomplish three primary goals:

Improving Teaching Quality

The goal of an educational institution should be to give students the best possible education. One of the most important ways to accomplish that is by helping teachers learn how they can improve. Student ratings of instructors offer feedback directly from the people who are impacted the most.

Good SETs can give instructors helpful tools to judge their success. Just as significantly, regular evaluations can help instructors know whether changes they make are improving or detracting from their educational goals. When scores improve, teachers are probably doing a better job of catering to their students, and vice versa.

Managing Human Resource Decisions

Educators aren’t the only professionals who can learn from student evaluations. Administrators frequently use student ratings to make decisions regarding their staff. While these evaluations are rarely the only element involved in hiring and promotion decisions, they can be an essential source of information.

Suppose two instructors achieve similar educational outcomes, but one has excellent student ratings, and the other’s are simply mediocre. Many administrators will consider the evaluations when choosing whom to offer tenure or to cut during staffing adjustments. The educator who has good ratings and good outcomes is more of an asset than a professor who only offers one or the other.

Maintain Enrollment

A critical effect of good staffing decisions and staff improvement is a more satisfied student base. An educational facility can’t achieve its goal if it doesn’t have a reliable, robust student body. If poor instruction or abrasive teachers are driving students away, the institution will suffer.

That’s why student evaluations are broadly valuable as well as specifically useful. When an institution has a broader culture of thorough and effective student feedback, the entire organization may improve. Evaluations can help keep students satisfied, enrollment rates steady, and the organization’s reputation high.

Controversy About Teacher Evaluations

There’s significant controversy surrounding the use of SETs and teacher evaluations. No evaluative tool is perfect. Student evaluations are only as reliable as the data they collect. Furthermore, student ratings can’t capture some aspects of a teacher’s efficacy. Many instructors argue that SETs should be just one part of a broader system of monitoring teachers instead of a primary factor, as they are in many modern institutions.

That’s not the only point of debate. Some other controversial questions surrounding student-teacher ratings include:

Do Evaluations Really Measure Teaching Effectiveness?

The fundamental goal of a student-teacher evaluation is to help improve teaching effectiveness. There’s significant debate about whether evaluations can actually do that.

The trouble with any evaluation is that it can only collect the data that it asks for. Common questions on these evaluations include:

  • ‌“In this class, I learned things I consider valuable.”
  • ‌“I believe I learned things from this professor.”
  • ‌“The instructor gave me useful feedback about my performance.”
  • ‌“The instructor taught the subject in a clear and understandable way.”

‌None of these questions actually cover how well the professor taught. They only cover how well the students feel like they are taught. The students may have learned more or less than they realized. That’s why many instructors argue that the best way to determine teaching efficacy is through testing. Their argument is that standardized tests give a more objective view of what students truly learned during a course.

Are Students the Best Sources of Data?

The next controversy regarding evaluations is whether they are useful at all. Any kind of data collection is only as accurate as the data source. While students are the only source of data on how a teacher is perceived, many people argue that they aren’t the best way to learn anything else.

To understand the debate, you need to return to the questions found on evaluations. These questions are all subjective. They specifically ask about how students perceive the teacher and course. None of them objectively measure how much the students have learned or how they learned it.

That’s why some teachers dislike evaluations. The subjective nature of these tests makes it easy for student biases to heavily affect the results. Studies have found that student course evaluations are heavily influenced by everything from gender and racial bias to individual interpersonal problems. A professor can receive unfairly low scores simply because of demographics instead of their actual skills.

Do Evaluations Encourage Poor Teaching?

Another significant debate is whether teacher evaluations encourage poor teaching and grade inflation. The argument is based on the simple idea that students who receive good grades in a course are more likely to be satisfied and give good evaluation ratings. According to this theory, teachers whose employment relies on good ratings may be more likely to give students better grades than they would without the ratings. The result is happier students and higher grades, but only because the teacher is sacrificing the quality of the education they provide.

Some studies support this hypothesis. One study by Wolfgang Stroebe found that teachers who are subject to student evaluations are more likely to give students “A” grades. To protect their own interests, these teachers are consciously or unconsciously inflating the grades they offer. That simultaneously makes both teacher evaluations and grades significantly less helpful for monitoring teacher efficacy.

Current Attitudes Toward Teacher Evaluations

With the controversy around teacher evaluations, it’s essential to understand how students and instructors feel about this feedback method. Multiple studies have been done to learn how everyone involved approaches student ratings of instructors and how they use the results.

With respect to student perception, another study found that students don’t believe that SETs encourage professors to grade more easily, lead to teaching changes, or impact the careers of their professors. Essentially, students appear to take SETs lightly, without regard to how they affect the institution.

The same study found that faculty and staff believe the opposite. Educators are very likely to believe that these evaluations encourage lenient grading and can affect their careers. Meanwhile, faculty also believe that students rate entertaining and lenient professors more highly than rigorous or less charismatic educators.

Is this true? The answer is complicated. Research shows that low grades and low evaluation scores are moderately correlated. However, high grades and high evaluations are not correlated. This appears to mean that professors who give low grades are more likely to get poorer evaluations, as educators suspect. However, simply giving high grades does not appear to be enough for educators to achieve higher SET scores.

How Teacher Evaluations Impact Educators and Students

It’s clear that SETs have consequences. These consequences appear to be different across the board, perhaps because of the different ways that educational institutions use teacher evaluations. Two separate organizations may have significantly different evaluation processes, and they may use the scores in very different ways.

There are a few common outcomes that can be identified depending on how SETs are used. The difference depends on whether the SETs are designed and implemented quantitatively or qualitatively.

Impact of Quantitative Evaluation Processes

The current philosophy behind teacher evaluations is that quantitative data is good. It provides hard numbers that allow instructors to easily understand the results and the areas where they scored high and low. They can also use the data to examine their current performance against their past performance. However, the potential for bias in these results is high.

It appears that quantitative student evaluations of instructors are harder on women than their male counterparts. Studies have not been done to see how this bias impacts the gender ratio of women to men in higher education, but it does pose the question of whether quantitative evaluations have a role in diversity problems among faculty in higher education.

Impact of Qualitative Evaluations Processes

There’s no consensus on what makes student evaluations “good.” A recent study suggests that even “unbiased, reliable, and valid student evaluations can still be unfair.” For that reason, many institutions are starting to shift toward a SET process that prioritizes qualitative, not quantitative, data.

These SETs are relatively new. Qualitative data is less easily used to directly compare educators. It’s not intended or valuable as a primary means of determining promotions and other personnel decisions by administrators. Instead, qualitative evaluations are best used by the instructors themselves to improve their work.

This method neatly solves two problems. First, it reduces the likelihood for a biased student body to unfairly hinder an instructor’s career. Second, teachers are less likely to simplify their courses or give higher grades to improve their evaluations. This helps maintain the integrity of the educational process and the staffing process simultaneously.

Teacher Takeaways from Student Evaluations

Regardless of the current SET process at an institution, these evaluations can be helpful for educators. Here’s how instructors can read their evaluations to find actionable takeaways.

Take Evaluations in Context

The first and most crucial guideline for teachers and administrators alike is to consider evaluations in their original context. Factors like particularly large or small class sizes, advanced course levels, and in-person delivery correlate to better evaluations. Meanwhile, lower-level courses, online classes, and female instructors are all likely to generate worse evaluations.

Keep these course contexts in mind when reading evaluations. This can help you avoid jumping to conclusions when presented with exceptionally high or low scores.

Look for Common Complaints

One or two low scores are inevitable. No instructor will satisfy every student in every class. However, you can read through your evaluations to spot common themes and complaints. For example, suppose you regularly get student comments about assigning too much homework or providing unclear instructions. Take this as an indication that you should reconsider those elements of your course. On the other hand, if you only get one student complaining about homework, it’s probably not an actual problem.

Prioritize Student Preferences

Just like you can look for common complaints, you can also keep an eye out for things that students repeatedly mention they like. Suppose you regularly get good scores in organization or communication. In this case, you can be confident that you’re doing a good job with this element. 

If even a few students use a free-response field to mention elements of the course they liked, take those compliments to heart. Students are more likely to remember and mention elements of a course they dislike than those they like, so any compliments are a sign that you’ve done something right.

In Summary

Student evaluations of teaching can be helpful. They just aren’t perfect. Many evals are designed to help administrators make decisions instead of helping instructors teach more effectively. Educators and administrators alike can benefit from viewing these evaluations as qualitative feedback for improvement instead of quantitative points of comparison. When teacher evaluations are written and used correctly, they can be stepping stones to a better education and a more successful organization.

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