Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Classroom Co-dependence and Course Evaluations

I've been thinking a lot about the issue of classroom co-dependence: the unhealthy relationship that can sometimes develop between an instructor and a class, facilitated by our needs as instructors for validation of our hard work, good course evaluations for tenure and promotion, and (sometimes) the love and adoration of our students that make up for all those sacrifices we made to get our degrees.  It can be very difficult to remember that we are there to facilitate learning, by whatever reasonable means, and that sometimes that conflicts with being liked by our students or having them give us a high five for our hard work in creating a learning experience for them.  Sometimes it means raising the bar high enough, pushing the students enough out of their comfort zones that they are not too happy with us.  Now, I generally receive high course evaluations from undergraduates and my students generally respond well to me.  At the same time, if I am being honest, I know this is because I've found that sweet spot of pushing them a little but not too much out of their comfort zones; and making sure that, though I ask a lot of them, the grades are still reasonably high (that is, they are in keeping with the average grades at UT).  I know in my heart of hearts that if I pushed them as hard as I probably should, most of them would resent me and give me low course evaluations--not because I am a bad teacher or because they didn't learn a heck of a lot but because they did not like to be made uncomfortable.

Indeed, as I meditate on teaching and students and classroom strategies this fall, I find myself returning again and again to the course evaluation.  At the risk of blaming course evaluations for all that is wrong with higher education, I do think they have done far more harm than good. The information they provide is not especially reliable, especially for demanding courses that award lower grades (aka not an A).  Very few students do more than fill in the bubbles.  We are lucky if a statistically valid sample of our students (in a large class) show up to do them and in small classes the sample is too small to be valid.  Comments are either extremely positive or extremely negative and most don't take the time to write comments at all.  It doesn't help matters that we hand out the evaluations while they are stressing about exams and finals and going home for the holidays or the end of the year.  And, finally, any instructor with a bit of 7th grade math figures out pretty quickly that the key to high course evaluations is a. making sure that students think they are getting As or Bs at the time of doing them (I know faculty who write easy midterms and killer finals to elevate their course evals while still giving them a reasonable grade distribution at the end); and b. making sure that, even if they don't all love the class, that nobody hates the class.  Nothing screws up an average, especially in a small class, like a few malcontents.  Never hand them out on a day when the students who never showed up all semester suddenly come out of the woodwork.  And so on.

Over the years, I've heard hundreds of "tips".  One of my favorites is the instructor who addresses the questions on the course evaluations point by point during the semester, without drawing attention to what he is doing, to tell his students how he is doing an outstanding job of X (returning exams quickly, conveying information clearly, being accessible).  His students, like students well-trained to parrot back what we tell them, dutifully do so on their evaluations of his course.  I don't know whether to be horrified at the manipulation or impressed by the savvy of this.  Mostly, I have taken the position that I don't pay much attention to them. Truth be told, I don't even read them until about a year after the class is over and I rarely find a comment that inclines me to rethink an element of the course (I am taking about undergrad courses, not grad seminars here: different story entirely with grad students).  These days I note that I have just become skilled at avoiding the zinger comments--the comments section is usually blank or says something sweet like "Nice job!"

More recently, however, I have started to wonder if course evaluations were more than a useless annoyance and, actually, something more insidious.  I have wondered if their very existence, if knowing that we faculty are going to be evaluated by our customers based not on the product we have delivered but on some vague sense of their comfort level and happiness, has been hugely detrimental to higher education.  Don't get me wrong: we faculty need to be held accountable for our teaching.  But surely there is some other way to do that?  Annual teaching portfolios?  Demonstrating that our students achieved some agreed-upon outcome? Peer evaluations?  Student evaluations can and should still be part of the package, but they can't be the sole source of evaluating instructor success.  Despite the discourse, students aren't customers and the university isn't a supermarket selling a customer experience.  In an era when data collection is so much easier; when we can now track student behavior, it makes much more sense to focus on what the students are learning and retaining and much less on whether the learning experience makes them as happy as a visit to Disneyland.

I am NOT advocating a joyless classroom--quite the opposite.  But what I AM advocating is a move away from this pernicious co-dependency that too many instructors have with the students, a co-dependency that is nearly forced on us by the situation in which we teach and have our teaching judged.  One of the reasons that students kick and scream at being asked to do reasonable amounts of work is simply that they have learned that it works--that we faculty, like a bad parent, back off and give them their way all too often.  It's no accident that, when they are upset at being asked to do reasonable things or move a bit out of their comfort zone (as with the flipped class), that their first reaction is to talk about what they are going to say on course evaluations.  That is their weapon, or so they believe.

Has the time come to re-think not just the role of the course evaluation but even the ways that we evaluate teaching?  Of course, to do so rigorously and well would require a much greater investment of time on the part of faculty and administration than handing over the task to a room full of freshmen.

1 comment:

  1. Many of the lessons I learned in my previous career as a college instructor (over 15 years), have served me as a corporate trainer. Of course, it was one of my most painful experiences that offered the most vital lessons.

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