Fish on Student Evaluations

Take that, student evaluations! Stanley Fish lowers the boom (Via Steve). Fish criticizes the questions some evaluation forms ask of students, like: "Did the instructor give lectures that facilitated note taking?" "Have you learned and understood the subject materials of this course?" etc. I agree, some of the questions put most or all the onus of learning onto the instructor, and some are problematic in other ways -- for example, at my university, students are asked to assess the instructor's use of technology to facilitate learning in the course. The teacher could be phenomenal but low-tech and could end up looking bad just because of that. Sometimes there are questions about course design that ask students to evaluate the teacher for decisions that have been made at the administrative level (the assignments, structure of the course, which textbooks are used, etc.). He's spot-on in that regard. But Fish goes further, suggesting that the very idea of having students evaluate teaching is wrongheaded. He calls instead for a grievance process that would be confidential and would catch problems early, while admitting that most colleges and universities already have such processes. What bothers me about the article is the idea that students' opinions are "ill-informed" and that students are unqualified to assess courses. Fish writes:

No doubt in many colleges and universities a grievance process is already in place, and if it is, there is absolutely no need for the waste of paper and time that now goes into preparing, printing, distributing, collecting, and tabulating forms that report the unfiltered opinions of those who, for whatever reason, decided to express them.

To be sure, there would still be a need for teaching evaluations that could legitimately play a role in promotion and tenure decisions. Those evaluations, however, could be provided by the system of peer visitation already used by most departments. It is, after all, a matter of judging professional competence, and who better to do that than a professional, someone who visits your class and assesses what you're doing (or trying to do) in the context of a career-long effort to do the same thing.

Is this whole article supposed to be a joke...? Some of us find student feedback quite valuable, at least as valuable as a one-time class visit and write-up (though those evaluations are much-needed too). What about the problems involved in peer visitation evaluations? While a sympathetic observer is a good thing, sometimes the resulting write-ups can be a little too rose-colored.

After reading the article, I thought: Oh yeah! I need to email University Course Evaluations and arrange for the Early Semester Evaluation Forms to be sent to my students.


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The article irritated me a gr

The article irritated me a great deal. Not that I disagree with many of the complaints made about the structure of the course evaluations, but because -- a few things, really. A sympathetic observer is just not an undergraduate student. They're not there all the time, in most of the classes, doing the homework, etc. Having someone observing your class is a different sort of information: useful, but different. No student's going to go through this sort of effort to say "this teacher is not very good" -- and, really, that would not be confidential in any reasonably small class. (Nor are evaluations, as much, unless the department works to type them up etc. But it's less of an issue.)

Throwing them in the trash

Trashing the evaluation forms doesn't do a whole lot for his ethos here. I agree with what you're saying, Wolfangel, about the students' being there all the time, being the ones who read the instructor's comments, and the ones who have one-on-one conferences with the instructor. There's no way a peer observation can get at all those layers. Students do have a unique and important perspective that should be taken seriously, and it's irksome how Fish calls instead for this grievance process, as if that's even close to the same thing. Personal problems between instructor and student or problems with some other aspect of the course have to get SO BAD that students are willing to take the time and trouble to go to a third party. I guess the students could speak to the instructor directly, but very few students are that brave when there's a power differential and a grade at stake.

And the thing that makes me the MOST exasperated? The fact that the comments students write are almost always actually pretty constructive and helpful, along the lines of, "I thought the discussion of Insert Book Title Here went well, but I don't think the class got very much out of Insert Other Book Title Here. I don't think this book should be assigned in this course in the future." Or, "You use too many examples when defining a term. Just use one good example and then move on." Or, "I learned a lot in this class, especially from the collaborative work. You should keep doing that."

But I guess teachers who throw their evaluation forms in the trash without looking at them -- yet assume the comments would consist of "casual cruelty" and the indulgence of grievances -- wouldn't know that, would they?

That's the thing. I tried

That's the thing. I tried to write useful evaluations. It depended -- I said little in classes that were bigger than 100 or smaller than 10 (the latter because I never had to -- any such comments I just made to the profs when appropriate, who were always already tenured). And sometimes these involved mentioning grievances because, well, sometimes they're deserved. I know a lot of people don't bother -- but when they don't, you just don't get comments, as opposed to "you're a stupidhead poo!" comments. (Though I've heard of very odd/surreal comments.) If someone takes the effort to write a comment, then they're not totally content-less.

I agree: grievances require a lot of feelign that you won't get in trouble, and a lot of energy to invest. As well as only being about the really bad things -- if all there are are grievances, you're never going to hear things like "you give too many similar examples" or "you spent too much time on x and not enough on y", or any of the good responses, because those aren't appropriate for a grievance.


avoiding the circular file

i think you've already touched on the crux of whether student evaluations are productive or not: good answers (to surveys, evaluation forms, interviews, exams, writing assignments, etc.) depend on good questions.

and student evaluations often ARE useless, in my experience in direct relation to how far up the administrative hierarchy the questions originate from. school-wide evaluation forms deemed theoretically suitable for asking any student about any type of class taught by any teacher on any subject matter? useless. arts-n-sciences evaluations? slightly less useless. departmentally issued forms? not bad--although, as you would imagine, they're much more on-topic now that i'm teaching writing in a writing program than they were when i taught writing in an english department. of course, the most useful feedback I get from my students comes when I'M the one asking the questions--because i know the material, know what my goals are, know what experiences they've been having (or that i hope they've been having--and if i'm wrong, their unexpected answers to my questions are humblingly informative!), know what language i've been using for the concepts i want to check in on their understanding of...

then, of course, there's the "unofficial" SU website students can go to to rate professors on how "entertaining" class was and how little time they could get away with spending on homework (sample results of this charming diversion appear as paper fliers on our walls every spring), which makes dismissive attitudes towards undergraduates' ability to assess what's truly valuable about a situation seem not altogether unwarranted. there are complainers everywhere, though; there are also thoughrful respondants who, if we ask them questions worth thinking about, will be all too happy to oblige.

(p.s. i tried to leave my url, but the form won't allow enough characters)

Thanks, Tyra

...for letting me know that! I've asked about it on Drupal's support forum, so maybe someone will tell me how to fix it.

UPDATE: Here's Tyra's blog: Cinnabar and Alabaster. Go check her out!

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