Student Evaluations Of Professors Flawed

By Dan Berrett, Chronicle Of Higher Education

In the coming weeks, students will participate in a ritual as familiar as it is reviled: evaluating their instructors.

One of the latest and most visible critiques of these assessments came this year from Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. He cast doubt on their validity and reliability, proposing that instead, professors complete an inventory of the research-based teaching practices they use. That would be more likely to promote learning than garden-variety evaluations do, Mr. Wieman wrote in a recent issue of the magazine Change. “Current methods,” he said, “fail to encourage, guide, or document teaching that leads to improved student learning outcomes.”

Is there a better tool out there? If student input matters, how can it be made meaningful?

The IDEA Center, a 40-year-old nonprofit that spun off from Kansas State University, thinks it has a student-ratings system that overcomes two chief critiques of most surveys: poorly designed questions and misused results. Its course-evaluation tool, which has been steadily gaining traction on campuses, is designed to help professors judge how well they’re meeting their own course goals. “It’s all about the improvement of teaching and learning,” says Ken Ryalls, the center’s president.

Still, IDEA says it’s a mistake to rely too much on any one factor to evaluate teaching. That should involve multiple measures: student feedback, peer observation, and instructors’ self-reflection. “We’re the first ones to say that student ratings are overemphasized,” says Mr. Ryalls.

Most of what’s wrong with typical evaluations, he says, is that administrators often take their results as numerical gospel. The difference in scores of, say, 4.3 and 4.4 becomes objective and meaningful. That’s like judging a researcher on one standard, the center says, like number of publications or grant money. “Neither by itself would signal quality research,” the center’s staff wrote in response to Mr. Wieman, “any more than an average student ratings score should be used as the only measure of teaching effectiveness.”