After every class students attend during college, they spend the last day of the semester writing evaluations for their instructors and the campus administration. These evaluations serve three main purposes: they let students express their opinions about courses that consume significant amounts of time and money, help academic institutions reward and penalize instructors for the quality of their work, and show teachers how they can improve their curricula for future classes. Without student evaluations, universities must rely heavily upon standardized test scores and classroom observations for the assessment of their teachers. Student evaluations not only counteract the limited sample sizes of classroom observations, which usually happen once or twice per year, but also avoid the biases of standardized test scores, which vary dramatically between classes and devalue any knowledge beyond the scope of the tests themselves. We clearly need student evaluations, but we should ask ourselves what these evaluations should cover and how we should balance their results with other assessment methods for our professors.
I award extra-credit for classes where all of my students submit their campus evaluations, but I also have my students fill-out other course surveys during their final exams. Unfortunately, university-wide surveys have multiple drawbacks: the responses they receive from students rarely provide useful feedback, these surveys do not account for the differences between departments, and their questions often seem more concerned with how students “feel” about their courses than what their classes help them accomplish. The course survey from the University of Oklahoma asks students about the amount they learned from the course, the quality of the course materials, the fairness of the instructor, the workload of the course, the expertise of the instructor, etc., but these questions often shortchange educators who teach required classes and reward professors who teach upper-division courses within their own departments. Few engineers complain about competent thermodynamics professors even if the material seems difficult, but first-year composition instructors must first overcome the disinterest and low expectations of their students before they can secure the respect and investment required for the success of their classes.
My own course surveys alternatively ask about the usefulness of specific activities from the course and the skills students learned and did not learn during the semester, and these evaluations provide both more precise assessments of the class and clearer recommendations about how I should revise the curriculum. I believe we can dramatically improve the quality and accuracy of student evaluations if we provide different surveys for separate departments and grade-levels: students do not always evaluate lower- and upper-division classes and general education and major classes using the same criteria. I would also recommend we pay more attention towards the measurable outcomes of university classes. If instructors received credit for the quality of the essays, projects, and other assignments students submitted for their courses, then universities could more-consistently reward instructors for difficult classes with clear and successful objectives. Until we add student work into our assessments of university professors, campus surveys will benefit instructors who assign less work and accept lower-quality submissions at the long-term expense of their students. While we should certainly honor the evaluations students submit for their classes, the current design of these evaluations and the lack of viable alternatives limits their potential value.