June 21, 2010

"[S]tudent evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance."

Stanley Fish writes:
[T]hey measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades. 
That's not just an old professor complaining that the students don't like his style. Fish is critiquing a proposal — from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, "a conservative think tank dedicated to private property rights and limited government" —  that would give cash bonuses to teachers (at the college and university level) based on so-called "customer satisfaction":
If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it....
ADDED: Normblog thinks Fish exaggerates:
[T]here are some things that even a student can tell. She may not yet know enough to understand all the subtleties of a challenging teaching method, but she does know something, and she knows more as she goes along. She can tell the difference between clarity and obscurity, between a love of the subject from her teachers and a dullness about it, between an enthusiasm for learning and an indifference towards the process and the students themselves, between a conscientious teacher and a lead-swinger, between an inspiring lecturer and a useless one.

126 comments:

GMay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GMay said...

"But sometimes (although not always) effective governing involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a term or an entire election cycle is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great bureaucracy, although you may not realize it for decades."

There, all fixed up for Obama's next oil spill speech.

AC245 said...

The sky is blue.

Water is wet.

Teachers think that it's unfair for anyone to judge them on their performance.

/oldnews

c3 said...

Teachers think that it's unfair for anyone to judge them on their performance.

I'd broaden that to all professions. Docs do the same thing:

My patients are sicker

chuck said...

Didn't that used to be called "relevance" back in the day? I didn't think it was a good idea at the time because most of the things promoted as relevant struck me as, well, irrelevant. Looks like Fish is afraid modern students might agree on that point.

BTW, isn't Fish the one who started the Duke English Department on the road to irrelevance and ruin?

SteveR said...

If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, keep things the way they are now.

Scott said...

But academic freedom does in fact have a meaning and a legitimate purpose: it protects faculty members from external constituencies intent on taking over the enterprise for mercenary or political reasons. The Texas “reform plan” is just that; its so called reforms would be funny were they not so dangerous. And it all began with student evaluations, or, rather, with the mistake of taking them seriously. Since then, it’s been all downhill.

To Fish, it's a mistake to take student evaluations seriously. He makes pedagogy out to be some kind of performance art that professors are entitled by tenure to inflict on their captive student audiences.

Fish's arguments would be more convincing if he addressed the issue of lousy, time-serving professors at large public institutions. How many such professors can be tolerated in an institution without degrading the degree programs that the students are working for? Fish should tell us.

Collegium implies a social contract among equals. This is not the contract that Fish sees between teacher and student -- and that's part of the problem. Student evaluations of teacher performance seem like a desperate way to open a channel of communication between student and teacher. But until colleges address the issues that Fish elides over, these evaluations should stay in place.

Quayle said...

Dumb conservative idea.

Dumb.

Did I say dumb?

Teachers should have a large brandy snifter on their desk.

I would be willing to let them put a few dollars of their own in to get things rolling.

Scott said...

At the risk of troll feeding, I ask,

Why is it dumb, Quayle? Try to muster a little coherence and tell us the reason that seems so obvious to you.

Pogo said...

It's a way around the teacher's unions, which have effectively removed any legitimate firings.

Market distortions beget market distortions, and so ad infinitum.

Quayle said...

The sole role of a teacher is to save the student time. There is no other purpose and it isn't entertainment.

I'm all for paying a teacher proportional to how much time they saved the students.

But until the students have mastered the material, which takes a lot more time than one class, they can't accurately or reasonably say how much time was saved.

Therefore they can't meaningfully rate the teacher.

Expat(ish) said...

Of course Fish was a famously unpopular professor at Duke with a certain crowd.

The ones who expected to get good grades for good work without a lot of sucking up or producing unintelligible goop. See, I was the rare non-academic star accepted to Dook. That place was chock-full-of Alex Keatons. Liberals, mostly, but otherwise pure Alex. Fish was killing them. His classes were baffling and none of these over-achievers could figure out how to get an A.

I'm just sorry I missed it. I am a bad enough writer that Fish might have thought me brilliant.

If you would like to know the real Fish, read his NYT op-ed trying to wriggle out of the wonderful public spanking Sokol gave him in 1996 when Fish published Sokol's (fake) paper on Social Deconstruciton and Quantum Physics. Seriously.

Great fun and you can see the guy is a tool. And not a good tool, a used wally-world tool kind of guy. Fit to fool faculty.

-XC

lucid said...

Go to Greg Mankiw's (who is himself a poplular professor at Harvard) blog for a brief description and then a link to research indicating that the students of better-liked professors in intro courses do WORSE in more advanced courses than the students of less-liked professors.

When I have taught, I have been well-evaluated and very well liked by my students. I think that is because I am kind, charming, and engaging in person. But, in my judgment, it has had very little to do with what my students learned.

Scott said...

If a teacher's sole reason for being is to help/make a student learn faster than they could on their own, then teachers should welcome the opportunity to have their pedagogic effectiveness evaluated.

But the don't. They vigorously fight it all the way. And tenure makes sure that bad instructors can never be dislodged. They lay and wait for students to take their survey courses, and waste their precious time and money.

Too often, the only thing that liberal arts students learn is how to give the instructors what they want in order to graduate.

The sole role of a teacher is to save the student time. There is no other purpose and it isn't entertainment.

And the sole purpose of sex is procreation. There is no other purpose and it isn't entertainment.

Two very conservative viewpoints.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's a way around the teacher's unions, which have effectively removed any legitimate firings."

That's not apt here, where the proposal applies to college and university teachers.

In K-12, the teachers are not evaluated by the students. Imagine if they were! That would be pretty funny.

Matthew said...

Had an advisor explain to me that teaching evaluations are a great way to evaluate teaching performance, if you know how to read them. By comparison, Fish either doesn't, or hasn't had the pleasure. An evaluation that simply says "There was too much homework" would be disregarded in my department unless it was explained why the homework was excessive: for example, lots of homework that did not illuminate the material, or was not related to other course material, et cetera.

Nonetheless, I'm unsure why, if all of my students said "way too much homework" I would be wrong to think "well, maybe I'm giving too much homework?" And experiment with other teaching strategies.

To the larger point of Fish's essay, this is a difficult way to evaluate faculty performance simply because reading teacher evaluations properly is a time consuming evaluation method. Reading them incorrectly (say, a scantron that asks whether the level of homework was appropriate) is much easier. And there are other (number of publications, service hours, seniority) evaluation methods which are much easier to do correctly.

That just leaves the problem of whether the funding organization cares about the things those evaluations measure. From Fish's article, it appears the proponents of this idea don't.

Irene said...

For K-12, there's ratemyteachers.com, which may be more troublesome than a school-sponsored evaluation!

Quayle said...

"And the sole purpose of sex is procreation. There is no other purpose and it isn't entertainment.

Two very conservative viewpoints."


(Fortunately I'm not that conservative.)

If we want teachers to be entertainers, then it seems we're going about our hiring and class management all wrong.

The class clowns should be rewarded for providing balance and counter-play.

Irene said...

On that site, a comment about my favorite high-school teacher states, "Don't count on her for concrete info, but be ready for a fully informative discussion on the washing machine & birth control in the women's movement."

CalNanno said...

I'm all for student evaluating professors because that dialog is an important one. All teachers/professors/educators should be constantly seeking feedback on learning, presentation style, length of class, notes, etc. so they can improve. This should not be solicited once a semester from students who do not take them seriously. I have taught for many years and have repeatedly seen negative evaluations with not one suggestion of improvement or example of why the class was so bad. I have seen many that say this class is bad because it was HARD. That's right a college class was HARD. I have also seen positive evaluations that again don't indicate what was so great. Putting a number on how a class was taught makes administrations happy but a good professor is seeking input all semester long. Students don't take them seriously and until they have some vested interest in filling out the evaluations they are, for the most part, a waste of paper and time.

Kirby Olson said...

I think Fish is probably right. As a grad student we gave good grades to get good evaluations, and it was only tenure that put a stop to that.

If you give all your students As guess what they give you good evaluations, and then the money according to this proposal would pour in.

Some students of course want rigor, and hard work, and all that.

But it's not a majority, generally.

The majority want to learn something, but not if it's too hard.

On the other hand, there ARE terrible faculty, and they DO get terrible evaluations, and huge skulking shadowy letters to the college president that sit in their files accusing them of things.

After tenure, you can still deny raises.

This is difficult to sort out.

Because some teachers take unpopular viewpoints, like communism, and try to ram them down the students' throats.

And they deny freedom of inquiry to the students.

I find that Fishy. I don't know what to do, but I think both Fish and the Texas board here are wrong.

It's probably best to flip a coin or do a Tarot reading, or something.

Irene said...

(My *Catholic* high school.)

Palladian said...

Student evaluations are unscientific, capricious and ultimately meaningless.

bagoh20 said...

"If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it"

This exact argument could be made for almost anything from cars to hotel accommodations. If customer reviews lead to formulaic, dumbed- down product then the shortcoming is with the producer not the consumer.

In most things real innovation or quality are rarely unrewarded with additional demand, higher value or both.

What the teacher thinks is valuable may not be what the customer (student) thinks. This is possible in the short term for some, but if the instruction is truly valuable, it will be obvious to many and with time, most.

The fear of evaluations sounds like a bit of narcissism and insecurity that is in need of the kind of character that teachers should project. It's a disappointing stance from people who evaluate others (from a position of power) for a living.

Even without a customer/provider relationship, a good manager or executive will ask his subordinates to evaluate him anonymously. Of course only if he really wants to improve any deficiencies. Otherwise don't ask.

ricpic said...

Although Fish's statement is short on, in fact is entirely missing specifics and therefore is hard to either support or refute, I was disturbed by his assertion that deliberately inducing confusion in a student can be an effective teaching method. In what way? Yes, there are complex subjects. But how does confusing the student lead him to an understanding of complexity?

For example, I would have no quarrel with an instructor who presented the case against the Constitution as vigorously as he presented the case for it. By all means present viewpoints to a student that disconcert him if for no other reason than that they are novel to him. Present them forcefully. But clearly. This is not the same thing at all as deliberately muddying the water.

I'd like to get Althouse's view on the methodology of inducing confusion in a student. I don't see the sense in it.

Skyler said...

Which is worse? Someone saying that teachers should confuse students? Or someone suggesting that the students should be responsible for grading the teachers?

Neither. The worst part of all of this is the premise that the government should be dictating school policies and school funding.

If we removed the government from schools, most of the acrimony in public discourse would be eliminated.

Schools should be controlled by the parents. Children, by definition, do not have the wisdom to evaluate their teachers. Government, by its nature, does not have the wisdom to do much of anything, let alone evaluate teachers or schools.

The more government involvement we got in schools, the worse the schools have become. Strange how the government never sees this effect.

bagoh20 said...

Teachers should be able to post a response to their evaluations to explain themselves and make the argument, unless they can't, which would be telling.

Good teachers are respected by most students. If they are not, then the system including teachers is failing at the most important goal. Maybe everyone should not be going to college nor teaching it.

Scott said...

"This exact argument could be made for almost anything from cars to hotel accommodations."

But academia is... special, and academics are special people who answer to a higher calling than people who make widgets or clean swimming pools or operate nail salons.

Once you arrive at being special, you must never be called to account for what you do or why you do it. That would be wrong. It would violate the natural law rights of special people.

You tool.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Try to muster a little coherence and tell us the reason that seems so obvious to you.


Well, I think it is a bad idea. It would lend itself to abuse and would encourage teachers to be mediocre and 'nicey nice' to get good customer satisfaction ratings.

Teachers shouldn't be judged on whether you "like" them or not. Whether they are popular with the "kids".

They should be judged on whether they are teaching the concepts that you need to know. If they are effectively spending class time in teaching AND challenging the students to higher achievements. If they are honestly conveying the concepts and not indocrintating or preaching.

Teachers who are challenging are often not popular at the time you take the class. They may not provide "customer satisfaction" at the time but later in retrospect you will appreciate the challenges they gave you.

Of course by then it will be too late because a bunch of whiney spoiled brat college students weren't happy campers with a hard or challenging experience; and they gave the professor a bad review and he/she lost their job or gave up on trying to turn the mush brained babies into adults who can think.

What is left are those who won't be inclined to be anything but ordinary. You think the students are getting pablum now? Wait until they institute this system.

Iapetus said...

For those of you who think Fish's argument against student evaluations is merely self-serving, let me tell you a personal story. You can believe it or not, but it's a true story.

Back in 1992, I was teaching a college level science course to non-science majors (lots of pre-law types, BTW). I decided to include a section on global warming, mainly because it interested me but also because I thought that after my students left school some familiarity with the subject might serve them well if they were informed citizens, as laymen rather than scientists.

In the early 1990s, the science of GW was definitely not "settled" then, even by Al Gore standards, and so I decided to take a neutral stand, presenting both pro and con arguments regarding man's role in GW. I intentionally kept my lectures even-handed. The handouts were ambiguous. The outside readings were on both sides of the issue. I told my students that I had no clear answers to give them but that my purpose of teaching them about GW was to inform them about an issue that might become important in their adult lifetimes.

Guess how the students responded to this uncertainty? When the anonymous course evaluations came in at the end of the semester, I learned how unhappy my students were NOT to be told how to think. They wanted AN answer. They wanted me to tell them how they should view man's role in GW. They said that was my role as a teacher: to give them AN answer. Because I did not offer that certainty, I was failing them as a teacher.

So, was I right to teach them a subject that, at the time, was not a really hot science topic (but did satisfy the university's science requirement for graduation)? Was I right not to give them pat answers but to take a neutral point of view? With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, you tell me.

Revenant said...

I can see an argument against giving cash bonuses to teachers with high approval ratings. The teachers might be tempted to bribe the students with easy grades.

But what about penalizing teachers who receive a high percentage of negative reviews? If a large percentage of your students think you did a bad job, you probably did a bad job.

Derek Kite said...

>Imagine if they were!

Well, two instances come to mind.

One my daughter. Grade 2. She complained that the teacher was yelling all the time. At the boys. I'm sure it wasn't all the time, and wasn't always at the boys, but close enough.

Second, an acquaintance. His son, grade 1, didn't want to go to school. Bully? No. Teacher. Somehow communicated that she didn't like him. Don't know the whole story. Maybe he wiggled and didn't sit still or something quite typical of a young boy. Again, close enough as an evaluation.

My mother, who had a number of kids, could tell the quality of the teachers by how she saw her children react to them.

Derek

bagoh20 said...

I sure wish some executives at BP would have gotten some evaluations from their subordinates or regulators. Self-evaluation is pretty useless.

Of course there will be idiots being unfair. Most of us who buy stuff on the Internet use customer reviews to make a decision. We learn to ignore the irrational or outlier reviews. Without these reviews you are just buying blind and few things will cost you as much as buying bad professors.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I'm all for student evaluating professors because that dialog is an important one. All teachers/professors/educators should be constantly seeking feedback on learning, presentation style, length of class, notes, etc. so they can improve

Absolutely. However, the reward shouldn't be monetary, cash reward bonus system, because that always.....always....tends to corrupt the system.

In addition, you are asking the students, Many of whom basically don't know their asses from a hole in the ground, who can barely write coherent sentences or do basic math, who show up late if at all, who use their laptops in class to social network with each other, who barely pay attention, etc ....to grade the quality of their learning experience for a cash reward.

I'm not saying their shouldn't be feedback and evaluations. It just shouldn't be a direct correlation to $$$$

If the teacher is crappy they should be terminated from their position.

bagoh20 said...

"So, was I right to teach them a subject that, at the time, was not a really hot science topic (but did satisfy the university's science requirement for graduation)? Was I right not to give them pat answers but to take a neutral point of view? With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, you tell me.

I'd be proud. Any student worth teaching will be signing up. Win - Win.

ricpic said...

The sky is blue.
Water is wet.
Fish a net nyet.
True or untrue?

bagoh20 said...

I agree it should not be rewarded with money, but if the evaluations lead to nobody wanting to take that teacher's class, then that teacher is not needed.

Scott said...

Has anyone ever had a professor...

...who was condescending or mocking?

...who spent significant lecture time on topics that didn't follow the syllabus?

...who made assertions that were proveably false?

...who would regale the class with stories about their experiences in the Kennedy administration, or with some other past glory; and yet imparted precious little about the subject for which they were presumably experts?

...from whom you learned less than from the teaching associates?

...who, if you had known how they were going to conduct themselves during lectures, you would have avoided registering for that class?

(BTW, I think this latent education theory is fascinating -- that a teacher's pedagogy can be designed to give students important education that they only become aware of many years after they take the class. Sort of like a post-hypnotic suggestion.)

wv: volate ... the quarterback volated the oblate spheriod to the wide receiver...

Derek Kite said...

>I was disturbed by his assertion that deliberately inducing confusion in a student can be an effective teaching method.

I would suggest that if the student isn't confused, they aren't learning. Difficult and challenging subjects or endeavors require new learning. New learning often is accompanied by discomfort, confusion, even physical discomfort. That is why many people stop learning new things. It is uncomfortable.

A couple of personal examples. When I learned my current occupation, I worked with a very experienced man. He would literally size up a situation in seconds, and proceed to sort out the situation before I even knew what was wrong. It was disconcerting to say the least. It took a couple of years to grasp what was going on. I have trained people since then, and challenge them, put them into a state of confusion and questioning, pushing them a little past their knowledge level. I expect them to lose sleep, to bang on the books, or wander around talking to themselves as they sort it out.

A second instance. I have done hobby programming for many years. Learned Pascal, and since many other things. I remember distinctly the confusion and discomfort when exposed to object oriented programming. A totally different way of doing things, with great advantages, but very different and very confusing. I had the feeling many times that I had lost the ability to learn. Eventually it came together, and I can't even remember why it was so hard to grasp.

Excellence at any endeavor requires pushing past the boundaries of our comfort, our knowledge and experience. An instructor who pushes like that will never be popular, and probably would have a very high failure rate.

Derek

Scott said...

"I would suggest that if the student isn't confused, they aren't learning."

You would make a hell of a driving instructor.

Bob Ellison said...

The amount of teaching that goes on in the progression from elementary to secondary to college to graduate education is usually inversely proportionate to the grade level being taught.

Bob Ellison said...

Uh, proportional. I guess.

Scott said...

How do you measure the amount of teaching? With a scale? With a shovel?

wv: sopor ...rific!

Gahrie said...

If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it....


Yet this is exactly the solution (merit pay) being proposed for K-12

rhhardin said...

Fish is justifying his younger attacks on the distinguished Wayne Booth in the 70s.

It was all part of a dead end.

Adam said...

The issue is not whether professors' teaching performance should be evaluated--of course it should. What's at issue is how to do that.

The problem with evaluations being made by students during the term in which they're taking the course is that they don't have a clear standard of comparison for evaluating that course. If they could tell whether or not they'd learned what a good professor would have taught them, they wouldn't have needed to take the class in the first place. Evaluating teaching is, in this crucial regard, quite different from rating hotels or restaurants.

I know of at least one top college where teaching is evaluated very carefully at tenure time, and it's done by surveying alumni rather than current students. I think this is an excellent approach; once students have been out in the world for a while they've had the opportunity to test themselves against people from a range of other schools. They actually have a pretty good idea whether they were well or poorly trained in various fields.

I also knew a distinguished professor who used to say that he found it very easy to evaluate his colleagues' teaching ability: He just asked himself which of them he'd want to have his son take a class from.

The paper Lucid recommended is pretty impressive, btw.

Lisa said...

I've seen this idea floated around recently... it is foolish.

Students are not my customers. One doesn't make a customer do anything, one doesn't discipline a customer. But I must do both with my students.

Putting in customer satisfaction surveys would result in a decrease in discipline (as teachers would be afraid to discipline students for fear of a bad review), a decrease in assignments, and grade inflation at the very least.

Lisa said...

"If a teacher's sole reason for being is to help/make a student learn faster than they could on their own, then teachers should welcome the opportunity to have their pedagogic effectiveness evaluated."

Scott, we evaluate it ourselves constantly.

Robert said...

Lisa,

I'm sorry, students are your customers. There are plenty examples of people paying other people to make them do stuff.

Personal Trainers come to mind.

Robert said...

How does this guy know his students will realize it was a great class decades in the future?

How many terrible teachers thought the same only to have former students never think it was a great class?

Duscany said...

I'm sort of partial to the idea that students should finish a course confused. In my first week at Columbia, history professor James Shenton, a campus force of nature, announced during freshman orientation that if we students weren't angry and confused half way through the first semester then he and his fellow professors "weren't doing their jobs."

They were trying to break us out of our lethargy, our biases and, as future folk star, Paul Simon, put it, "all the crap we learned in high school."

Christian said...

360 degree evaluation
- poll the students
- poll relevant co-workers
- poll administrators
- any other stakeholders?

Base bonus compensation on a combined score of the above.

This used to be difficult to do. Now it can be done by the computer pretty easily.

Christian said...

"sometimes disappointment is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary although you may not realize it for decades."

This is true of life. I don't think we should make it true of instiutions we pay for. I don't expect Burget King to disappoint me, but then be grateful years later that I learned a valuable lesson that hamburgers are not what make a man who he is. We shouldn't expect our teachers to entertain... but we shouldn't make excuses for disappointment. I'm disappointed when I go to the DMV, but that does not mean I want to give them a payraise for teaching me to school my feelings.

HDHouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HDHouse said...

If given the opportunity to do something really silly in the education field one can always look to Texas to lead the way.

What's next? Pseudo-science 101 taught by Karnac the Magnificent?

edutcher said...

I suppose the eval form could have the question, "Did you really learn anything useful from this course?". That would put a dent in a lot of teacher's worlds.

As to the idea evals are inherently bad, I had a prof (a professional student) whose idea of instruction was just doing proofs on the board, not much else. The one night we had one of the older profs, who actually knew how to teach, fill in, he actually explained something and you could see the lights go on. Sad to say, that was a one shot. I think about a third of the class flunked and another third barely scraped through.

Yeah, evals are necessary.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's a way around the teacher's unions, which have effectively removed any legitimate firings."

That's not apt here, where the proposal applies to college and university teachers.

In K-12, the teachers are not evaluated by the students. Imagine if they were! That would be pretty funny.


Everything in green and purple crayon, "You're mean and your mommy dresses you funny".

Karen said...

When I think of student evaluations, I think of the two semesters of World Geography that I took in college. One taught by a graduate student, the other taught by a full professor.
The graduate student organized her material, gave us a framework upon which to hang the information we were given, used activities that aided the learning process, and gave tough but fair exams.
The full professor had no framework, no organization, never faced the classroom while he spoke, covered only the material that he felt like covering, spent class time showing slideshows of parts of the world where he had traveled (which correlated exactly with the parts of the material he covered) where you had to endure all his personal travel stories just to get to the two or three things that might be on the exam, but gave relatively simple exams.
I remember being rather shocked to overhear students talking when filling out student evals about how much better evaluations they were giving to the full professor than they had given to the grad student. But I guess the tests were easier.

Lisa said...

Robert,

Students are not my customers; education is not a business.

Education is a public good. It's purpose is to provide an education to everyone.

I have legal responsibilities for my students and to my students that no business has to a customer.

Further, there is a far cry between an adult asking a personal trainer to 'make them do stuff' and a teacher disciplining a student because of the stuff they did, requiring that student to complete assignments.

I always find it odd that the most conservative of people love this idea of school as business (preferably for profit) and student as consumer but typically hate the 'self-esteem movement'. If you put in place this asinine notion of student as consumer and customer, then you will destroy all discipline in schools as well as grading and homework.

I don't think that is what you want.

Scott said...

@Lisa:

"Scott, we evaluate it ourselves constantly."

Okay, go on. Teach us all how you do this without student input. It would certainly seem at first blush that if you leave the student out of the picture, any method of evaluation would be completely self-serving and as such pointless.

"Students are not my customers."

They are not your peers, either; but at the college level, they ought to be. The whole idea of the collegium (at least in ancient Rome) is that of a social contract among equals. It's a mutual arrangement that implies that both teacher and student have responsibilities in equal measure.

The supportive nature of that mutuality is completely lost in the modern American college. Instead, what the professional educators in this thread seem to be embracing is the "boot camp" model (or maybe the "child abuse" model):

--Parents and students marshall an enormous amount of money to send the budding young adult to college.

--Young adult has no idea wtf to expect of the experience, other than to survive it. (Can you have a meaningful social contract with an unwitting party?)

--Professors inflict a performance art called "teaching" upon groups of these young adults, where confusing or infuriating them is considered "good education" (see prior comments by professors in this thread); yet who think that students can't possibly know what a good education is, so they don't have to listen to them. ("You'll thank me for it some day.")

--Having gone through this socialization meat grinder for four years, the young adult gets their Bachelor of Arts degree, and is now expected to send checks periodically to the alumni association, which constantly reminds him or her what a beneficial experience they had.

This the model that most colleges use for undergraduate education -- and it's fucked up. There is no sense of mutuality -- of collegiality -- in the classroom. It educates people to be subjects of institutions, not independed citizens who have choices and responsibilities.

There are a few institutions (like this one) who have faced this institutional corruption and dealt with it head-on, by putting the collegium back in college. I wish I had gone to a school like that. Maybe in the next lifetime...

Scott said...

independed = independent. eym hookt on foniks

Scott said...

@Lisa: I read from your profile that you're a public school teacher. Since I wasn't aware of that when I originally posted, I ended up talking past you.

K-12 education is a completely different issue from college education. Since you have to be a substitute parent at times, I would be more in agreement with the notion that student evaluation is far less relevant in K-12 than in college.

Roger J. said...

I second Christian's endorsement of 360 evaluations. I think it gives a more balanced approach.

At the college level, most professors have had little training in pedagogy--it is assumed their terminal degree gives the right to "profess." IMO, there are some basic tenants of pedagogy, and to assume merely because someone has earned an advanced degree doesnt mean they can teach.

I value student evaluations in the courses I teach, and usually give one mid course, so I can either explain why I am doing what I am doing, and/or correct anything that is bothering the students.

A very complex topic, I think, and I do not have any solutions.

Original Mike said...

"Guess how the students responded to this uncertainty? When the anonymous course evaluations came in at the end of the semester, I learned how unhappy my students were NOT to be told how to think. They wanted AN answer. They wanted me to tell them how they should view man's role in GW. They said that was my role as a teacher: to give them AN answer. Because I did not offer that certainty, I was failing them as a teacher."

Ain't it the truth.

Student evaluations are as good as the students themselves. Ten percent are intelligent, insightful, and useful to the instructor in improving the course. The rest are of poor quality and are best ignored.

Robert said...

Lisa,

You get paid by parents through taxes to teach their kids so they don't have to.

You have legal responsibilities because you are dealing with a minor, but I bet they are not much different than the ones daycare providers have.

You get paid more than daycare providers because you have to teach as well as watch.

And it is a business in the form of a union that tries to extract as much money as possible from the parents for the services you provide them.

A.W. said...

Every time we try to introduce a little accountability into our public schools, out comes the whining. When you have basic competency tests the whine is “but now teachers are only teaching to the test!” Now Mr. Fish has his new version—teaching is apparently too hard to quantify.

I would be a lot more sympathetic to these complaints IF OUR SCHOOLS WERE GETTING THE JOB DONE. But right now, they aren’t. Kids come to college often lacking skills that used to be considered basic for a high school diploma-holder. Schools graduate people who are illiterate (excluding those suffering from learning disabilities when I say that) on a frighteningly regular basis.

There are quantifiables in teaching. In math, there are equations and functions to know, techniques to master. In language there is literacy and proficiency; there is such a thing as correct spelling and grammar. And in science there are techniques, laws, theories and facts; and in history there are facts that are objectively true regardless of what you make of them. What Mr. Fish is talking about is the higher level stuff. Like once you know that Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence, how do you reconcile that with the fact he owned slaves? There is no single, easy answer. But before you can get to that next level, guess what? You have to know that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. And you have to know what it says.

And I am not exaggerating to say that a lot of kids don’t know this. In my college literature class, about half the class stated they never read the Declaration before and were shocked at all the interesting stuff that was in it. Jesus wept.

So, Fish, spare me. We put down the time when the kids were taught the three r’s: reading ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. But while it is proper to say education should not be limited to those three subjects, hey, how about we make sure we are getting them done, first, and then worry about about the next level crap you are whining about?

Class factotum said...

students are not the customers

Then they are the product. Are you producing a high-quality product or not? How do we measure that? How should teachers be evaluated on the product they are producing?

a good manager or executive will ask his subordinates to evaluate him anonymously. Of course only if he really wants to improve any deficiencies.

One of my grad school profs had us do evaluations in the middle of the semester. What good is feedback, she asked, if she can't act on it?

Timon said...

I am always offended by these customer response surveys, but despised them more so in college. How can the blind lead the blind?There were only two or three classes in which I had formed an opinion: two came down to a confused curriculum, and the last I got a B+ from the adjunct despite skipping the last half of the course.

HDHouse said...

A.W. said...
Every time we try to introduce a little accountability into our public schools...."

That is a strawdog argument. This isn' "a little accountability". This is giving students control over the performance evaluations of those who are teaching. If you think that this hasn't been tried and discarded often go back 40 years when it was "the rage" and quickly abandoned. SETs have had a long and unfruitful life.

They have proved valuable to the teacher in gaining immediate feedback but as a tool for others in evaluating performance the conclusion has been that it needed to be implemented from day one of the education process so that students will learn the responsibilities implied in giving it rather than using it as a blunt instrument of revenge or the gentle bit of ass kissing.

MadisonMan said...

Student evaluations are as good as the students themselves. Ten percent are intelligent, insightful, and useful to the instructor in improving the course. The rest are of poor quality and are best ignored.

True. My Dad was a professor. He always said that 10% of your students think you walk on water and 10% think you are the devil incarnate. 80% don't care. It's hard to get actual information out of those 80%.

A.W. said...

HDHouse

Again, sorry, but given that they aren't even getting the basics of the basics done, zero sympathy.

Freeman Hunt said...

"sometimes disappointment is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary although you may not realize it for decades."

"Sure, you think my course was a waste of time now. But just wait thirty years! Then you'll see! You'll all see!"

Freeman Hunt said...

This is not the same as merit pay for K-12. I know of no K-12 merit pay system that relies on student evaluations.

Freeman Hunt said...

Aren't the real "customers" often the parents? Let them fill out the evaluations.

"My kid sounds like an idiot when talking about this subject. Bad course."

"My son is now excellent at explaining to me how to deconstruct my privilege, how Western imperialistic capitalistic doctrines have enslaved the working class, and how to evaluate nearly every social system or personal ethic via Marxist dialectic. Unfortunately, this was, as I understand it, a course in maths, his understanding of which remains mediocre at best."

"Professor slept with my daughter. F."

Freeman Hunt said...

Forget the college system. Bunch of silly hoops. Professors as free agents. If somebody has something worthwhile to teach you, sign up with him.

That would be the dream system.

Derek Kite said...

Scott: I would suggest that a learning driver is confused period. No matter what the instructor does.

Confusion and discomfort come naturally. In the case of a driving instructor, the goal is to keep everybody alive until the initial confusion and overwhelm of learning the mechanical controls and the coordination go away. Then gradually introducing new learning situations where the student can add to their abilities.

Derek

Kirby Olson said...

Germany used to have a sign-up system like the one Freeman conjures.

Schopenhauer and Kant and Hegel had to get students to pay to attend lectures, or else they didn't make any money.

Teaching's a very hard job. It's tricky, too. In composition, I get students from plumbing and heating who really hate writing sitting next to students who want to be poets, and read a lot of poetry. I have to teach whole classes.

Generally, the plumbing and heating group hates me for whatever I do because they hate the topic. Meanwhile, the poets like everything I do because they like the topic.

Sometimes I've been asked to teach a course I could care less about: Greek Mythology, for instance (which I abandoned in 4th grade like everyone else). Still, I taught it.

The students hated it almost as much as I did.

It was a mistake, but it made me reread Homer, and two years later I retaught the course, and it was fairly successful.

One of the problems I see (evaluating anything is a problem as we also have to evaluate the evaluator) is that teachers would stick with tried and true methods, and courses, and never learn anything new, in order to maximize profits.

Teaching and learning are weird and have strange curves in them. I'm teaching myself botany from an old textbook this summer, and for the longest time I made no progress, and now I know enough to go smoothly through the book.

I'm reteaching myself algebra as well. Part of it is a matter of getting the way of thinking right, and then the rest comes more easily.

In teaching myself Finnish, there is also some point of saturation at which point everything starts to go better.

I think if I took those courses from a prof I would hate the prof though, because I don't like scientific methodology much. Too dry, too unfunny, too something.

So maybe in some cases students are evaluating a field, rather than the teacher herself.

I've seen Fish's lectures, and he's magnificent by ANY standards on my scorecard.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Sorry Lisa, but you are completely wrong.

The students, or more to the point the parents of the students, are your customers. Your salary, retirement, health insurance.....EVERYTHING....is paid for by taxes of not only the parents but everyone in your District.

When you are the parent of a college student or a student who is working their way through college and taking out burdensome student loans to obtain a product, a college degree, (to the tune of $38,000 a year in my case) we ARE your customers.

The question is not should college professors be evaluated by students. They should because it would provide valuable information for the next group of students. Similar to the reviews of the hotels in the other thread, it is good to know a bit about the experience you are buying before you committ.

The question is HOW to evaluate and should there be a DIRECT CORRELATION between the student's evaluation and CASH.

I submit that that type of system would lead to corruption, bribery, graft and would dumb down (if it is even possible to make education dumber) the classes.

Scott said...

@Derek: I still think you would make a hell of a driving instructor. :)

There, there you go. There are no bad turns. Let's deconstruct it. First, you seem to be challenging the myths of the drivers in the opposing lane...

(Was looking for a good YouTube video showing Bob Newhart's driving instructor sketch, but couldn't find one, damn.)

Scott said...

@DBQ: I love ya, but Lisa is a bit more right than you are.

You can't refuse to educate your kid. It's against the law. That law is based on the notion that educating children is an essential social responsibility.

If you're not homeschooling or sending your kid to a private school, then she or he attends public school. And those teachers, in fulfillment of the law, are instruments of the state, and not clients or customers of either the student or parent.

If K-12 public school teachers aren't delivering the education that fulfills the ideals embodied in the law, then it's a public policy issue, not a teacher-parent or teacher-student issue.

It sucks, but that's the way it is.

Freeman Hunt said...

Yes, if we do that, students might do things to suck up to the professors. It would open the whole system up to bribery (monetary, sexual, positive evaluation, flattery, etc.) and teach students to merely parrot rather than truly learn.

Oh wait, we're not talking about grades... What was this about again?

Scott said...

Maybe we need to make clear what we're talking about.

The Fish article was about college education.

Lisa and some others seem to be talking about K-12 education.

These two institutional meat grinders have issues that are on completely different planets, so it's important to differentiate between them.

Hagar said...

If teachers get merit pay, then someone is going to have to decide on those merits; i.e., merit pay is a powerful way to enforce conformance to that person's pet theories and idiosyncracies.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

You can't refuse to educate your kid. It's against the law. That law is based on the notion that educating children is an essential social responsibility

I never intimated that. Nor do I say that children should not receive an education. An educated population IS a social benefit. Although I'm not so sure that the liberals think this is the case, since they are the ones who are instrumental in the perversion and degradation of our education system. An uneducated or dumbed down population is much easier to control. More useful idiots can be produced that way.

Too bad we don't have an educated population. EVEN after 12 years of 'public' education we have produced several generations of barely functionally literate people. The public school system is a joke and is broken.

HOWEVER, what I am saying that is teachers and the public school system are directly funded by parents and by the rest of the taxpayers. As such, they are providing a service and we are their customers. As customers, we should be able to demand a decent product and a decent result.

Unfortunately, we are not free to choose. Not free to decide NOT to be paying customers of the system. We are forced to subsidize a substandard system that is not teaching properly and that is often teaching things that are objectionable to ME the paying customer.

You are also confusing the two systems. Public (mandatory funding) schools verus college (voluntary funding). If the students and parents and tax payers are consumers in public education system (and I say they are), then it is even more so in college.

Lisa said...

Scott,

You asked how we can evaluate our teaching without the students. We do so through a nearly daily assessment of our students (both formal and informal). Can they do the homework? Can they do the quiz? Can they answer this question? Sometimes it is simply one or two who don't get it; sometimes more struggle and we must reteach.

But most teachers are constantly assessing our students to be sure they understand and can do what we are teaching... if they can, we find another way of reteaching.

Hagar said...

In college, we sliderule jockeys had to take a certain number of courses in the "Humanities," which were supposed to civilize us. 10-15 years later I would sometimes meet again with fellow students from these classes, their eyes would grow big and round, and they would say, "Oh, I remember you. You are the guy who argued with the professor in class!"

Scott said...

@DBQ: Sweetheart, if a school system is funded through taxes (that are taken from me under duress, regardless of whether I am sending children to school or not), then I am not a "customer" of that school. That school is a public service in fulfillment of a legal and social obligation.

(I wonder how that "customer" argument would go over if a cop from my local PD pulled me over for speeding. "But officer, I'm your customer, and I strongly resent you speaking to me in that tone of voice!")

"You are also confusing the two systems. Public (mandatory funding) schools verus college (voluntary funding)."

No I'm not. I made that explicit distinction. Read my previous post again. First sentence, third paragraph.

Scott said...

@Lisa: Thanks for responding. Again, I think the pedagogic issues relating to K-12 vs. college are on different planets. What you do is entirely different -- and far more demanding -- than what a college professor does in an undergraduate course.

Scott said...

@DBQ: Oops, referencing post at 8:54. Post at 9:00 underlines difference between college and K-12.

Honestly, we're not that far apart.

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HDHouse said...

@ the stick in the muds collectively:

There seems to be some sort of idea that if you pay taxes, you get a management "say" in how things go. No you don't.

You get elections and you elect people who then generally hire and or appoint people who in turn...yada yada....

But because you pay taxes that pay polic salaries, you don't have a thing to say about the cop doing his job or the fireman doing his...nor do you have anything to say about about much of anything that has to do with the schools other than to engage the administration and the local boards of education - but you are not invited into the classroom at any level to offer up advice...and you just have to learn to live with the disappointing fruits of your elections....see what 8 years of no child left behind has done to our system?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

@DBQ: Sweetheart, if a school system is funded through taxes (that are taken from me under duress, regardless of whether I am sending children to school or not), then I am not a "customer" of that school.

@Scott: Darling. When the "product" of the school system that I am funding through my property taxes and bond initiatives, is a person that I may have to hire I am a customer because I expect that the "product" of the school system should have received at least a minimal education.

When I, as a member of society expect that the public schools, in exchange for my money, produce a functioning person who can be a positive contributor to society, I am a customer.

When you TAKE my money in exchange for someting....I am a customer. Unwilling, but still a customer.

As a customer, I have the right to demand service, production, quality and value for my money.

I'm not getting those things.

Re the cop. Yes. We are their customers. They aren't our rulers or our betters. They work for the tax payers.

So, if you are afraid to assert your rights via the police because they might hurt you, I suppose you are also afraid to confront the bad teachers in the public school system because they might hurt your child too? Both of those things indicate that the public sector has too much power over us and they consider themselves not accountable.

I posted my response about the distinction between public and college at the same time as you so I see you are making the distinction as well.

To bring it back to the actual topic. Should college students evaluate their professors and class. I think so. Should there be a direct monetary correlation, which would lend itself to bribery and corruption.....I think not.

Original Mike said...

I teach graduate level science. The best student "evaluations" are the exams. Grading the exams tells me if they learned the material or not.

Scott said...

@DBQ, turtle dove, honey bunch:

"To bring it back to the actual topic. Should college students evaluate their professors and class. I think so. Should there be a direct monetary correlation, which would lend itself to bribery and corruption.....I think not."

Agreed. But I think Fish is against student evaluations, period, with or without cash incentives. What I said in my very first was that the desire for evaluations points to a larger issue, but in the absence of a solution, evaluations should stay in place.

As for "customers" -- Customers buy things. I live in a state with the highest property taxes in the nation. Most of those taxes go to support the school district. I am a single man who does not have and will never have any children in that school district or any other school district. What is this "customer" buying? Or are you saying that I should not have to pay school taxes? (I would agree with that proposition.)

Richard Dolan said...

This thread is as odd as Fish's article that got it going.

What is most odd about it is the idea floating through both the article and many comments that "college education" and "teacher performance" in a college setting are fungible goods (in an economic sense), when they plainly are not. A research university is more different from than similar to a community college, for example. Teacher evaluations have little to no impact on academic advancement in a research university, a fact summed up in the phrase 'publish or perish.' I suspect that different imperatives are at work at the other end of the "college education" spectrum.

Students too have many different objectives in attending college -- the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, defined abstractly, probably being fairly low on their list. Much higher on the list is likely to be student recognition that, for better of worse, a university degree today is regarded as an essential ticket to financial success later in life. The importance of a college education is agressively marketed that way by those having an interest in increasing the allocation of public resources to universities. Giving that reality, it is hardly surprising to find many students who want a professor to "provide an answer" so that the students will know what to spew back on the exam, so that they can get the grade and thus obtain the 'ticket' that is the object of the entire exercise for those students. Of course, other students have a different objectives including the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and perhaps most have mixed objectives (one of which is likely to be having a good time).

Given the differing agendas of administrators, professors and students, it is hardly surprising that those constituencies (such as student-consumers) will have very different ideas about what constitutes "good teaching." But that is hardly a sensible argument against making an effort to recognize and reward "good teaching," even accepting its multiple and conflicting definitions. And it bears remembering that the folks deciding who gets rewarded for "good teaching" are themselves academics (either professors or administrators but probably not students), who are quite likely to understand the limitations inherent in any consumer evaluation/survey.

As always, it is the assumptions behind articles like Fish's that are more interesting than the cnoclusions. They deserve more attention than they are getting.

Original Mike said...

"I am a single man who does not have and will never have any children in that school district or any other school district. What is this "customer" buying?"

Engineers who know how to build the roads you drive on and sewers that carry away your waste, doctors who know how to treat you, ...

How about a harder question?

Dust Bunny Queen said...

@Scott: Dumpling (we have to stop meeting like this, my husband will get jealous) /wink

I am a single man who does not have and will never have any children in that school district or any other school district. What is this "customer" buying?

Your tax dollars are supposed to be buying a decent education that will produce educated, productive, functional citizens.

You already said that education is a 'social good' and I agree with you. Since you and I are funding or purchasing this education with our tax dollars and the "products" of the education system are the students who will (hopefully) be using their education and working in society (becoming future teachers, mechanics, police, fire fighters, store clerks, etc). People who will also be paying taxes to support government programs that you and I also rely upon.

When the system that we are funding is producing substandard products (idiots who can't add two and two to get four), I submit that we as consumers are not getting good value for our money.

Jenner said...

Just because Fish said it, don't discount the idea.

Evals should be used to help the teacher improve but they need to solicit the information in a way that is helpful to that end. Evals tend to rate answers on a numerical scale, and without clarifying information do nothing to accurately assess what actually happened in the class. Additionally, receiving the information that students aren't getting the class is not helpful to find out after the semester is over.

Many evals ask questions like whether the information was presented in an understandable way, then ask the student to place a mark next to something like "sometimes," "never," or "always." Students rarely give explanatory answers, and administrators rarely go beyond this rating (it is impossible to do so since evals are anonymous), so a "sometimes" professor gets a so-so rating attached to him without more information. But the teacher wants to know what happened that the student didn't feel he got the information in an understandable way. Without further information, the teacher is frustrated, but is now stuck with a poor eval. Therefore, student evaluations on the whole DO NOT help the teacher improve, but allow the administration to claim they are keeping tabs on their faculty.

Many times, student evaluations are the only thing that documents what happened in the class. In my experience, other faculty or deans rarely sit in on classes, so there is little "objective" feedback for the professor.

Most teachers are sincerely interested in improving, but when the primary or only method of evaluation is conducted by students it is unrealistic that these ratings will do anything to serve that end.

Finally, it is true that those students who are dissatisfied, tend to be the only ones who respond to evals. And what's worse, the complaints are almost always in the abstract, so it's impossible to know how to correct the situation.

Timon said...

Professors as free agents, like Freeman Hunt says, but without the pay. The first rule of education is that nobody who wants money to educate can be trusted, and no one willing to pay can learn anything. It's not that I distrusted my professors and teachers, but almost all of them, if you scratched the surface, said the same thing.

Scott said...

@Big Mike: That's certainly a common canard that you're reciting.

But setting that aside for a moment: it's inapposite to DBQ's assertion that someone who sends their kid to a public school is a "customer" of that school. Since I have no kids but I'm paying for her kids' education too, I should have just as much say about how they're educated as she does. This is what makes it a public policy issue and not a customer relationship. If she wants to be a customer, she can send her kids to private school or homeschool them -- but it doesn't absolve her from paying school taxes.

As for the magical benefits of school taxes: Public education should be means tested, and funded through the general fund. Poor parents who don't want to send their kids to public school should get vouchers to pay for private school. And if you don't have any kids, you shouldn't have to pay a special tax for education outside of what's collected for the general fund. The current system of funding is grossly unfair and inequitable.

Robert said...

@Scott
You are forgetting we have made it illegal to not educate your kid. That requirement is self imposed.

Robert said...

@Scott

When you go to the DMV for a license how do you classify yourself? Would it maybe be customer?

Also, you do have just as much say as a childs mother about how that child is taught in a public school. Everybody has 1 vote.

Original Mike said...

"Additionally, receiving the information that students aren't getting the class is not helpful to find out after the semester is over."

At least in our department, we teach the same course year after year, so evals are used to make improvements going forward. A couple of people have suggested mid-term evals, but they would not be very useful. The student hasn't had a chance to form a well-founded opinion (unless there is an egregious fault with the course/prof) and the prof doesn't have the time to make large midcourse corrections.

"Many evals ask questions like whether the information was presented in an understandable way, then ask the student to place a mark next to something like "sometimes," "never," or "always." Students rarely give explanatory answers,"

For course improvement, I find the numerical part of the eval pretty worthless. It's the comments that I find useful and I make a point of urging the students to comment when the evals are handed out.

Geoff Matthews said...

Well, how about the state determines the content of a class (ie, a bunch of professors get together and determine that) and all classes produce have the same test?

Scott said...

RE: Althouse's comment from Norm Geras: Norm and I had lunch at a Korean restaurant in Manhattan a number of years ago. What a cool guy! I wish I could have taken a course of his while he was still teaching.

Norm is my favorite Commie. :)

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If money flows from me to thee
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If in response to formed call
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Jenner said...

In my class I have implemented periodic anonymous surveys to determine if the students are getting what they need to. I ask two questions - what things are helping you understand the material, what things do you still not understand/what things are not useful. I am usually able to address the concerns at the next class. This has helped immensely in keeping the students on track and has allowed them input to the course (ownership & responsiblity to learn). It also encourages them to speak up more in class (to the benefit of other students) when there is something they don't understand, instead of going through the whole semester being confused.

In higher education, academic freedom will prohibit imposing the same test for the same classes. Who should determine the standard? Before anyone deplores academic freedom (since we tend to think of academia as liberally oriented), it is necessary for a free society. This is the tension of the tenure system. We should all celebrate academic freedom (because we want differing points of view in the classroom), so what can be done to ensure that? Tenure, in theory, allows people security against the shifting political winds and ideally guarantees students to think independently as well. So although I agree there should be some changes in the system, we should recognize that the system does have a rational reason for its existence.

Scott said...

Not singling out Jenner, but why is it that often when someone defends a flawed system that produces unintended consequences, they often say, "I agree there should be some changes in the system" -- and then they never suggest any changes?

Maybe because when it personally benefits you, even at the expense of others, you don't want to mess with it?

Original Mike said...

@Scott: With respect to the sciences, I would not call the current system flawed. It's working pretty well at the college level.

With respect to the humanities and the "social" sciences, I'm not in a position to judge.

Joe said...

I am a single man who does not have and will never have any children in that school district or any other school district. What is this "customer" buying?

People who make more money and thus pay more taxes and social security.

Hagar said...

In college, I also found that some Bus Ad courses had duplicate Econ numbers and would count as "Humanities," so I took some 400 level Bus Ad courses, hoping they might at least be a little useful sometime in the future. Two from ol' Doc Parrish, and I still remember one of them, a kind of Harvard-style problem course. Worked way too much on it, sadly neglecting my engineering courses for lack of time, and still just got a B. One of the other guys overheard me aching about it and said, "Look Hagar, he did not give any A's and only 2 B's, and you got one of them, and you don't even belong here!"

Ol' Doc Parrish was a pretty stiff old bird, but a very good professor and dean, and the country needs more like him.

The two best teachers (as instructors) I have had - one in high school and one in college - were egotistical s.o.b's, thoroughly unfair, and rough on the slower students, but they taught.

The runner-up was a nice old fogey professor that the students complained about because they thought they did not learn anything from him. They did - a lot - but did not realize it because he taught so nice and easy with visual aids, etc. that they did not even realize the subject was hard (like Mechanics of Materials and Structural Design).

Original Mike said...

One of my "favorite" comments from my teaching evaluations was: "I would have done better in the course if he had made me do the homework.

What are you gonna do?

Jenner said...

I was just commenting on the reason for not making all exams the same (academic freedom). I felt a mention of tenure was necessary to that idea, but I didn't suggest any changes to the tenure system since as a student eval thread, I didn't feel this was the place to open that up.

The tenure system actually doesn't benefit me despite the fact that I am in higher education. I teach one of those things that is generally not viewed as "worthy" of tenure - a clinical type course - there is a "caste" system in academia, but again that's also not the point of this thread, so I don't want to go too far off topic. What most us (in clinical teaching) have is renewable long term contracts (i.e., 3 or 5 years - though some schools do have a separate tenure track for these types of teachers). This tends to be the widely considered compromise for people teaching these courses. The tenure system could move toward this, so long as there is still protection for academic freedom. Because contracts end at some point, and may not be renewed, the protection is not as solid.

What some administrations have done to avoid this problem altogether is started highering more adjuncts to teach even core courses. It doesn't serve students that well to have an adjunct in foundational courses (students need a lot of time outside the classroom with the professor and most adjuncts can't work and teach in a course that demanding). Adjuncts also get paid squat with no benefits, so there is a high turnover, which leads to less quality instruction.

Freeman Hunt said...

College has become mostly an institution for the purpose of getting a piece of paper. Most people don't graduate as well-educated adults, but they get their pieces of paper, so they're happy, and because they're happy to have gotten their pieces of paper, they give to the alumni fund, so the school is happy.

If you want to learn, learn. Maybe that means college classes, maybe not.

If you want the piece of paper, complete the prescribed path of hoops that college sets before you and get your piece of paper.

Just don't conflate getting the piece of paper with getting an education.

jgm said...

rhhardin, loooong ways upthread: Think I've seen you mention Wayne Booth a couple of times around here. He's been a hero of mine since I was a late teenager, but I was unaware of Fish's attacks on his work (hell, I haven't been aware of Fish for all that long).

Fish is a strange duck, isn't he? Sometimes he makes sense, and he definitely writes better than most of his ilk.

But his ilk, of course, is the post-normal crowd, so that's not saying much. I went looking for him in relation to Booth, and came up with Doing What Comes Naturally, in which he seeks, in classic post-normal fashion, to undermine any "stable" interpretations of, in this case, irony. For "stable," as I'm sure you know, read "authorial intention," or, more succinctly, "truth" as the author sees it and consciously or un guides the reader to share.

Anyway, maybe I missed it, but I don't think Fish mentioned Booth's discussion of "unstable" irony in RoI.

Just maundering. How did you run across Booth? He wasn't on the booklist, let alone taught, in any class I ever took.

jgm said...

Well, PE, but that doesn't count.

anon2 said...

Carrell & West (2010) did an interesting study at the Air Force Academy. Basically, they found that student evaluations of teachers correlated positively student performance in the concurrent course. However, the evaluations correlated negatively with the grade in the required follow-on course (at the AFA, the students have a large number of required courses, they don't get to choose which section they take, and the students take common exams across all sections). Older professors were rated lower and their students did better in follow-up courses, while adjuncts and jr faculty were rated more highly even though their students did worse.

There is some selection bias in the study as AFA cadets tend to be over achievers and I suspect more deferential to authority than your typical college student. So I would expect that the trend is even stronger at your typical public university.

At any rate, I think this is an important study that all who are interested in the evaluation of teaching should read carefully:

http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/653808

cathyf said...

Leftists see racial and gender bias as an explanation for every odd thing in the workplace, as if white male professionals spend every waking moment trying to do nasty things to their colleagues. Conservatives rightly ridicule this. But, oddly enough, neither the left nor the right sees the slightest possibility that adolescents (or slightly older) under great stress (end of semester and exams) who have no personal stake in the outcome (every student who is harmed or benefits from evaluations is in a future class) might just answer the evaluations in a way motivated by racism, sexism, childish obnoxiousness, or sheer cussedness.

hmi said...

I teach in the humanities at a mid-size university. Students are not my customers. Possibly they are the customers of the university, the entity they have asked to instruct and evaluate them. My job is to see how they measure up, to do my best to help them improve, and to report to the administration on how well they do. But the student gets no direct vote on what they think is important in my class, on what reading is appropriate to the course, nor on the standards I ought to use to perform my evaluation. Those are all the precise things I am paid to do—by the university, not the student.

Kurt said...

When I was teaching college, I couldn't help but notice the correlation between the grades students received in my courses and the amount of positive or negative evaluations I received. In my first semester at a particular institution, I took the words of my colleagues at face value and applied very rigorous standards in the courses I was teaching. As it turned out, I was the toughest grader in the department that semester, and I also received an overwhelmingly negative response from students. The next semester, I was much easier in my grading, and the responses from students were mostly glowing. Coincidence? I think not.

While I haven't taught students in years, I still work at a university, and in my current capacity, I have served on various faculty committees and gotten to know a number of faculty members. Not too long ago, I looked up some of the faculty members I know on websites such as ratemyprofessors.com. One of the things that I have noticed there is that the comments students make often reflect my impression of particular faculty members based on my dealings with them outside of the classroom. I'm not surprised, for instance, to see students refer to faculty member x as an excellent teacher but a rather strange person, or faculty member y as rather scatter-brained, or faculty member z as a workaholic task master who is impressed with his own intellect.

So while I can agree with Fish that faculty members are right to be concerned about too much emphasis being placed on student evaluations--which are definitely an imperfect metric for evaluating teaching quality or effectiveness--I can also say that in the aggregate, the evaluations can help to provide a useful portrait of what a particular faculty member is like in the classroom.

Kev said...

LTTP here, but a few observations:

If there ever was a recipe for non-risk-taking, entirely formulaic, dumbed-down teaching, this is it....


Yet this is exactly the solution (merit pay) being proposed for K-12


How so? It seems like one would want to reward good teaching and discourage bad teaching. Isn't it at least a better idea than the current union-favored model where everyone's salary is determined almost solely by the number of years they've taught, even if they're awful at it?

(However, if the merit pay in question is to be awarded on the basis of the students' performance on standardized state tests and nothing else, then I agree--it's an awful idea.)

While I haven't taught students in years, I still work at a university

Kurt, I'm assuming that means you're a dean or VP or something of the sort. Not to be too much of a one-trick pony here, but I think this is part of the problem: Schools and universities shouldn't be run by ex-teachers. I"m a big fan of requiring all administrators to teach, so that the people who are making educational decisions are actually educators--and current ones, not someone who may have taught for 20 years or more.

Kurt said...

Kev--Actually, I do research in a capacity that doesn't involve working with students.

newscaper said...

Higher education is an indirect market a bit like the TV business, where you have networks, viewerss, and advertisers. The customer is the advertiser and the networks' product is the viewers they can deliver.

In college, its similarly weird, though not a real parallel.

Although the students (parents?) pay, in a sense they are the product and the customer is also the community of employers and professional societies, with [legit] accreditation bodies as referees.

The biggest problem with the student-as-customer mdel is that in this day and age of the egalitarian idiot liberals having convinced everyone they have a 'right' to go to college (regardless of ability), the students mostly want the credential, and not the knowledge that it is supposed to represent.

I'm back in industry for two years after years as a non-Phd, on-tenured 'instructor' of Computer Science. We instructors got a raw deal to a great extent -- the dean and senior tenured types would give us grief for less-than-stellar teaching evals in the intro thru intermediate curses we taught, even though we had to teach all the service courses with non-majors who didn't want to be there, and courses for the majors who were being broken-in/weeded out. Of course the tenured profs got the wheat after we'd taken all the heat from the chaff we separated. SO not only were they able to have it easier with more competent and motivated students who were left, some of profs were ridiculously easy really sucked but were easy, not teaching much info but getting good evals regardless, or other just plain sucked but were untouchable due to tenure.

If the dean needed to raise the departmental avg student eval score (to get the provost off his back, or suck up), he could only lean on the instructors and the new profs shooting for tenure. We were stuck because we would get grief for worse evals, but then we'd also get grief if we let 'em sail thru unprepared, where the profs had to deal with them.

Our faculty evals did weigh student evals in with objective scoring of teaching load, plus service plus research.

The big thing my last couple of years was 'retention'. The overarching goal of a big state university is ever expanding enrollments. With people starting to finally look at graduation rates (and time to finish for those who do) the admins are realizing they need to do some damage control. However, the problem is that the non-1st tier state schools have been growing at the *bottom*, with those who are marginal prospects at best.

It really is screwed up.

Ross said...

Many of the questions asked on the student evaluation forms are not questions the students are able to answer. e.g. "My instructor knows the material well". The student might know if I conveyed the information well but they don't know if I know the information. I would think that a terminal degree in the area would show that you know the material in a principles course.

I would love it if professors were able to see an analysis of the ACT or SAT scores of students in the class compared to a post class nationally standardized final exam that the professor did not see in advance. I would love to have feedback about which areas of the common body of knowledge I am not covering well because like most people in any occupation I would like to get better at my job.

My student evaluation scores are average and I am OK with that. I know ways to boost my score but I refuse to do them. The biggest written complaint that I get is that I refuse to give the students a copy of the test to study before the test. I have explained that the test is a sample of the information they need but many of the students do not want to learn any information that is not on the exam. Some of the professors I work with read all the test questions to the class the session before the exam so that is a student expectation. Should I harm the learning experience of the students by altering the course in a way that would lead to higher grades but less learning?

David Guenthner said...

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has responded to Professor Fish and the other critics of its higher education reform agenda here:

http://www.texaspolicy.com/legislativeupdates_single.php?report_id=3139

Among the key points that have been missed in these criticisms:

• The program is voluntary. Faculty members are not required to participate. The plan rewards those teachers based upon evaluations and the number of students taught. This encourages faculty to teach as many students as possible.

• Existing evaluation forms submitted at the end of the year are used to rate the teachers. These evaluations are typically conducted before final grades are awarded. Multiple studies have shown that students’ ratings are not biased by their likely grades, thus limiting teachers’ incentives to award higher grades in an effort to secure a higher evaluation and thus, a bonus. Additionally, all faculty members are encouraged to agree to limit high grades and grade inflation when first joining the program.

• Studies show that student evaluations are effective measures of teacher performance, especially when the goals and expectations for a course are clearly laid out.

• These bonuses would be available to all teachers, not just tenured professors. As we showed in a 2009 article, 70% of courses taught in public universities are taught by non-tenure-track faculty, including graduate teaching assistants. The average tenured professor teaches fewer than three courses per year. Non-tenured faculty normally earn far less than tenured faculty, often as little as $10 per hour. Those teachers who do the most and best work of educating our youth should be rewarded for such.

The criticisms of student evaluations also ignore the fact that these are only one part of a much larger reform plan that encourages students, parents, and taxpayers to become more involved in improving higher education at public universities.

anon2 said...

The Texas Policy Foundation can claim "studies have shown" all kinds of things. But they don't cite any, so there is no way to evaluate the quality of the "studies" to which they refer. I cited a specific study in an earlier comment that has been picked up picked up by several others (Alan Jacobs, Glenn Reynolds, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Caron that I know of). The paper demonstrates that when choice of follow-on courses is not affected by selection bias, student performance is negatively correlated with the student's rating of the prerequisite course. The sample of responses in the study was over 10,000 students at the AirForce Academy.

Maybe someone can point out a serious deficiency in this work, but by my reading it makes it clear that teaching evaluations are not a valuable assessment tool. If I'm missing something I'll happily stand corrected. But anecdotes, gut feelings, and reference to uncited "studies" just won't cut it.

rwdome said...

I have been an adjunct lecturer at our local Law School for ten years. In teaching Civil Procedure to first year students, my goals are often inconsistent with the student's expectations. Students want the clearest and most efficient path to getting a good grade. Grades, grades, grades. What will be on the exam? What are you looking for? Can I have more feedback please? Did I miss something that might be on the exam at the end of the semester? This cluster of questions defines their main priorities.

When you teach to these priorities, i.e., "teach to the exam," you will get better evaluations. This has been my experience.

I do not teach to these priorities. In fact, my priorities are different. I want the students to learn how to analyze and solve problems, assimilate relevant law and take responsibility for how they approach the purpose, audience and format requirements that are inevitably tied to any procedural question. I do not spoon feed them the law, and I expect them to show up to class prepared and ready to discuss complex issues that they will confront as lawyers. I provide direct feedback, expect good work, and don't accept unplausible excuses. This is not a popularity contest, and my goal is not to make friends (and certainly not make enemies). I treat the students with respect, and I make it clear when their work is good. As a partner in a relatively large law firm, I treat our associates pretty much the same way. Most of them respect me.

So my question is this: as a student, do you want someone to hold your hand up to the examination or encourage you to learn how to use a basic set of skills that will actually help you become a proficient attorney? The practice of law spoonfeeds nothing, and it can be unforgiving. You will be responsible for deadlines, calendars, dealing with judges, opposing counsel, employees and supervisors. In the middle of that, you will actually be practicing law.

My conclusion is simple: At least with respect to first year law students, evaluations have marginal value, if any. When I teach to the test, my evaluations are much better. When I force the students to think and take responsibility for their own learning experience, I am insulted or criticized in a manner that makes it clear that the "evaluator" may be being forced, perhaps for the first time in his or her life, to actually do some work. I take this as a complement.