Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

This article on the limited value of teaching evaluations makes for bracing reading. It is based on experiences in UK universities, but I assume many of the lessons would be applicable to similar mainstream institutions in the US. Broadly speaking, the study referenced concludes that positive teaching evaluations actually correlate negatively with educational outcomes, meaning that students basically hate professors who actually make them learn. What’s more, it claims that a narrowly functional view of education actually increases over the course of the students’ college career — many come with a real love of learning, and it’s gradually beaten out of them.

On one level, of course, it’s satisfying for us as faculty members to imagine that negative course evaluations mean that we’re bold truth-tellers resisting the lowest-common-denominator model of education, etc. I’d suggest, however, that this negative correlation only holds in institutions without a clearly articulated set of pedagogical commitments. In institutions that do have such explicit commitments — like Shimer College, for instance — I imagine that teaching evaluations and educational outcomes correlate fairly closely, at least if students have significant buy-in and investment in that pedagogical model.

And for student buy-in to happen, you absolutely must have faculty buy-in. Faculty should all be able to answer questions about why courses and programs are structured in the way they are, and those answers should be consistent. Whatever the preferred pedagogical model, whether it’s lecturing or discussion or some mix, everyone involved should be able to give an account of why that method is preferable and what purpose it’s serving. Not every professor has to do the same thing, but there should be some sense of what benefit students are supposed to derive from a variety of styles — and people should actually mean it, not just be hand-wavy.

This sounds totalitarian, I know, but we already see what the alternative is: a relative indifference to pedagogy as a topic of explicit reflection, leading to each individual instructor re-inventing the wheel in near-total isolation from their colleagues. Why shouldn’t students “shop around” for pedagogical methods that come easiest to them when we’re doing literally the same thing with our own pedagogical approach?

If students know what they’re getting and know why it’s supposed to be beneficial, then education and satisfaction should go together. In a total vacuum of explicit pedagogical reflection, students will default to non-academic standards for satisfaction, because we’re giving them nothing else. If students don’t know how to evaluate whether we’re helping them to learn, it’s not because students are stupid and ignorant and we shouldn’t ask them anything — it’s because we’ve failed to teach them that. And the only way to lay the groundwork for actually teaching them that is to make focused discussion of pedagogical commitments, with both fellow faculty members and with students, a pervasive feature of the culture of a given school.

Failing that, each individual faculty member should be able to give an account of why they’re doing what they’re doing and of what it would look like for students to be really making progress. If we don’t have an answer — for instance, if we just assign a mid-term and final paper because we need something to grade — then we should change our approach to something that has an actual rationale. And I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for any particular pedagogical model (such as Shimer’s), but for any explicit model at all. We at least need an ethos if we’re going to fight against the inertia of nihilism.

2 thoughts on “Teaching evaluations and student buy-in

  1. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

    “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

    “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

    The students are desperate for something to believe in.

    Everyone knows it. I am not the only person alive to remember giant cumbersome cellphones sensing irony in their flattened return. I am not the only person to watch how explosively little 3″ x 4″ tiny windows looking out over an infinite webspace of informational noise crash the peace of darkness. Look at all our fellow humans grabbed by that invisible hand of the free exchange of information, and see them forced by nothing but engaged boredom look down, and narrow, and cowed, and into a small window to an abyss. Isn’t it obvious? It’s a connection to an on-going totality, a connection sending and receiving nearly enough instantaneously that it eludes conscious awareness. And it’s telling them exactly what they want to hear, and what so many people right now want so badly to hear, and so earnestly to hear, and so desperately to hear right now, is that it really is true there’s nothing worth believing in. Because hearing someone be the jerk who preaches love, and magic, and wonder, and the amazing moment of excitement squealing “I know ain’t it cool!!”, the jerk only tempts us to the let down, again. So we want despair, we want to admit we’re already dead, we want to just listen to the noise before we go. No more regrets, if there’s nothing lost.

    So, maybe if we ourselves, for whatever differences we have politically or philosophically or temperamentally or personally we decide to set those aside, and started believing in there being something to believe in, and loved teaching, loved learning from those we’re supposed to be teaching, and loved sharing wonder at how any of it turns out the ways it does, and loved the lesson plans and grading and vacant stares and tough shells and plagiarism and backtalking and group projects and outright rebellion in the streets—or else they were not us, too—maybe, as just I’d like to believe in this story, we’ll turn this around.

    “But he had judged them too easily. They applauded his rings and scarves, his ears full of goldfish and aces, with a proper politeness but without wonder. Offering no true magic, he drew no true magic back from them; and when a spell failed—as when, promising to turn a duck into a duke for them to rob, he produced a handful of duke cherries—he was clapped just as kindly and vacantly as though he had succeeded. They were a perfect audience.”

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