Do Course Evaluations Matter?

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Do Course Evaluations Matter?

Anna Yarinsky

It’s the last week of the semester, and your professor allots ten minutes of class time for filling out course evaluations. You use a numerical scale to rate different aspects of her teaching and provide a couple qualitative comments about what you appreciated and what you would change. Then you press “Submit.”

For many students, the rest of the process is a mystery. Who sees the ratings you give? Does anyone actually read the comments you write? And wouldn’t it be nice if the collected results were available to the student body?

According to John Geer, Dean of the College of Arts and Science, course evaluations serve two main purposes: first, to help instructors reflect on their pedagogy, and second, to provide an additional metric for administrative decisions about tenure and promotions. These evaluations persist despite concerns about reliability, low student response rates, and biases inherent in evaluating female and minority professors.

Tool for Self-Reflection

Course evaluations provide professors with specific, anonymous feedback on their teaching. Instructors with little teaching experience benefit especially from these metrics, Geer said. Faculty who are new to Vanderbilt or still early in their teaching career need feedback to determine how Vanderbilt students learn best.

Cynthia Porter, a graduate student in the Department of German, Russian, and Eastern European Studies, says course evaluations help graduate students visualize their growth as teachers over time, especially those who want to become professors.  

“It provides you with a story of where you’ve been as an educator,” Porter said. “It’s kind of like weird scrapbooking.”

However, Craig Smith, Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Undergraduate Affairs in Peabody College, said not all Vanderbilt professors take course evaluations to heart.

“Some take them very seriously and try to use student comments to plan and improve their courses, whereas others try to discount the evaluations as what they see as largely meaningless customer satisfaction surveys,” Smith said.

While some professors show little regard for course evaluations, others directly apply the feedback to their next class.

“My professor put up some comments that past students had made on his course evaluations and used it to give his input on some of the difficulties that students had from first semester and to show us that he actually looked at them,” first-year Katie McVeigh said.

Metric for Administrative Decisions

Students’ course evaluations do not go unnoticed by Vanderbilt administrators and can play a role in whether professors receive tenure or are promoted.

“For new faculty members, evaluations are often used to determine whether and when an instructor might be referred to the Center for Teaching as a way to improve their teaching,” Smith said. “They, along with peer teaching observations, become an indicator of quality of teaching which is a factor in renewing the contracts of non-tenure-track teaching faculty.”

For tenure-track faculty, course evaluations factor into decisions about promotion from Associate to Full Professor and about salary raises.

“There’s no magic number, for instance, for someone to get tenure or get promoted, but we take seriously the fact that people have to be highly effective teachers,” Geer said. “How do you measure that? Well, one part of that is going to be the evaluations, but it’s not going to be the only part.”

Alongside course evaluations, the administration also considers whether the professor is teaching many introductory level courses (where students may be more likely to give negative feedback), whether their scores are improving over time, and how their scores compare to other professors teaching the class, Geer said. Small differences in evaluation scores won’t determine who is fired and who is promoted. Rather, administration looks at bigger trends and comparisons among faculty.

Problems with Course Evaluations

The results of course evaluations don’t always reliably indicate a professor’s performance. On the one hand, students may provide more detailed comments for courses they feel very positively or negatively about.

“If I don’t feel any particular way about a course, I may just skim through [the evaluation], but if it’s one that I feel strongly about, then I’ll really write something,” said sophomore Lauren Gish. “You want the class to be better for the next people.”

The varying course types may also skew evaluation results. An introductory course taught at 9 a.m. probably includes many students who would rather be elsewhere, Geer said, and the professor’s course evaluations reflect this.

Demographic factors may also skew responses. A 2018 study conducted by Professors Kristina Mitchell (Texas Tech University) and Jonathan Martin (Midland College) found that a professor’s gender significantly impacts the ratings and comments they receive.

“Students tend to comment on a woman’s appearance and personality far more often than a man’s,” the study reported. “Women are referred to as ‘teacher’ [as opposed to ‘professor’] more often than men, which indicates that students generally may have less professional respect for their female professors.”

Other studies have shown that racial minority professors receive more negative course evaluations on average than white professors do. These problems have led some to argue that course evaluations should be abandoned altogether.

“Our research shows they’re biased against women,” Mitchell wrote in a Slate article last March. “That means using them is illegal.”

According to Geer, low rate of student participation further challenges the effectiveness of course evaluations. Even when students do complete evaluations, their comments do not always provide usable feedback. Detailed, honest comments help professors the most, Porter said, but not all students write them.

“I’ve had a couple people that seem like they don’t want to risk hurting my feelings, even though I don’t know who’s writing what,” Porter said. “You don’t have to feel concerned about that. Don’t feel like you have to mince your words. That’s the whole point of it being anonymous.”

Student Use of Course Evaluations and Rate My Professors

Vanderbilt students can access summarized results of professors’ past course evaluations online to guide them during the course selection process. Numerical ratings from 2016 onward are published for classes in which at least 50% of students completed evaluations, but no student comments are published.

Many students, however, prefer to use the website Rate My Professors. This site offers an alternative source for professor ratings to aid students in choosing specific courses and sections. Ratings on this website detail each professor’s average difficulty level and overall quality, based on an average of anonymous student ratings. The site also shows specific comments from past students, but there is no way to verify that the anonymous rater actually took the class in question.

“I think that [Rate My Professors] definitely gives very good first hand advice on what teachers or courses are like, and it lets you know if courses are going to be easy or hard,” McVeigh said.

Gish reported that she also used Rate My Professors but was careful to look at comments about the specific courses and not just the professor as a whole. She learned this caution after enjoying a class with a professor poorly rated on Rate My Professors.

Smith acknowledged the widespread use of Rate My Professors, but also noted its limitations.

“My impression is that the evaluations on Rate My Professor tend to be more negative, overall, than what we get through our system, but the evaluations are not completely invalid,” Smith said. “There may be some bias on Rate My Professor for folks with negative opinions to be a bit more likely to post their opinions than folk with more positive opinions.”

Despite student reliance on Rate My Professors, course evaluations provide a more official diagnostic, both for students choosing classes and for administrative decisions about promotion and tenure.

“I want people to have compelling sense of arguments and evidence that says somebody is a highly effective teacher,” Geer said. “One component– and a pretty important component –are the evaluations.”

Visit here to learn more about course evaluations or access previous course evaluation results.

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