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Monday, November 09, 2009

Course Evaluations

My faculty voted on Friday to change the course evaluation form that we ask students to fill out.  It's a small thing, but that didn't stop us from debating it for nearly two hours.

The length of the debate partly reflects our idiosyncratic love of long meetings -- we seem to have a Law of Conservation of Meeting Length, so that we find something to discuss regardless of the actual magnitude of a proposal's importance -- but it also reflects the fact that, although a change in the course evaluation form may seem trivial, it can actually have subtle and important implications.

For example, we voted to ask students to rate professors on their "ability to present the subject matter in a clear and organized manner."  That seems pretty straightfoward, and it won't bother me, because the students have always regarded my teaching style as clear and organized.  But what if a professor believes that the essence of the Socratic method is to revel in the ambiguities of the subject matter and to require the students to figure out the answers for themselves, with no clear guidance from the instructor?  I can certainly remember professors who ran their classes that way.  (Although I may be giving them too much credit for thinking about their teaching styles -- perhaps they were just intrinsically unclear and disorganized).  They will be disadvantaged.

Also, we deleted an inquiry about the professor's "enthusiasm."  That seems to me to be an important component of good teaching.  I was sorry to see that one go.

So while it might hardly seem worth debating, the centralized choice of the specification of the components of good teaching actually has subtle but important impacts on academic freedom.  Maybe our debate was worth it after all.

Posted by Jonathan Siegel on November 9, 2009 at 10:13 AM | Permalink


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Well, it depends; is it a numerical ranking system or are you asking for comments? Because if the latter, I don't see a problem. Students will explain what they mean. If the formed, I agree it's unlikely to yield useful data without a lot more work than was likely put into it. But most student evaluations I've seen have put emphasis on the comments.

Posted by: Katie | Nov 9, 2009 10:19:02 PM

I disagree that the issue is how much credit we give our students. The importance of clear standards applies to any type of evaluation and any group that is doing the evaluating. If there are no standards, then a tool can only give a very rough measurement at best. As long as evaluations are only credited for what they can actually measure, that is ok. However, I would still suggest that calling them evaluations opens the door to the a disproportionate weight being given to the information that they solicit. However, it is likely that this only arises as an issue if they are being used against a professor and I do not have a sense of how often this happens.

Posted by: anon | Nov 9, 2009 8:47:53 PM

Eh, depends on how much credit you give your students. I think most people who can get into law school are capable of distinguishing between professors who affect a disorganized air to get a particular point across (and thus do retain a structure if non-obvious) and professors who really are floundering such that learning is compromised. Though I suppose you could skirt the entire question by just asking students about the effectiveness of the professor's presentation style.

Posted by: Katie | Nov 9, 2009 2:51:43 PM

I have a hypothesis that an individual faculty member's love of long meetings is inversely proportional to that faculty member's love of legal scholarship.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 9, 2009 12:26:39 PM

It seems to me that student course evaluations are really just structured feedback. Calling them evaluations gives them a weight that is disproportionate to the information that they are designed to solicit. Unless students are all using the same definitions and criteria for evaluations or even any explicit criteria, no one knows what standards they are using. For example, one student's clear and organized may mean detailed Power Point slides that can be directly imported into a file and used as an outline. Another student's clear and organized may mean speaking loudly and slowly. However, revising course evaluations to include definitions and standards would require faculty to develop and agree definitions among themselves.

Posted by: anon | Nov 9, 2009 11:13:55 AM

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