Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Student evaluations, revisited

Student evaluationsIt has been some time since MoneyLaw explored the issue of student evaluations. The Chronicle of Higher Education's On Hiring blog has just published a very brief two-part series. The discussion there, though focused on Rate My Professors, a tool with wider application in undergraduate settings than in law school, has generate some interesting comments. This one takes the prize for (justified?) cynicism:
[Students] want to do as little work as possible, get the highest grades possible, and be entertained the entire time.
And this comment may score the highest rating for insightfulness:
[I]f professors have themselves good evaluations, they attach positive meaning to them, and if they have bad ones, they think that only bad teachers get good evaluations.
Thinking, however briefly, about this issue has led me to contemplate two modest reforms of student evaluations.

First, as an antidote for the widely held and probably well supported belief that student evaluations correlate strongly with the perceived ease of a course, perhaps we can add a single question to our evaluations: "What grade do you expect to receive in this course?" This is a question for all seasons and all reasons; it does not require that the school in question suggest, let alone enforce, some sort of grading curve.

Second, to the extent this is feasible, I would poll students at some interval, perhaps five years beyond graduation, about courses and instructors they knew while they were enrolled. Some teachers who were popular, precisely because they were thought to be easy, may appear in retrospect to have imparted less value. Or their pedagogy was as enduring as it was entertaining. Or their toughness turned out to have benefited the students, and the most honest graduates are willing to confess that they should have given more positive evaluations. Whatever the case, we can ask.

In the interest of full disclosure, I propose all this as a classroom teacher who (1) did try to entertain students (albeit without success), (2) was rightfully perceived as demanding (even though I most often issued grades under a mandatory curve and therefore could not have been more or less lenient than less demanding colleagues), and (3) sincerely believe that my value as a teacher was not fully appreciated till my students had a chance to work on real problems and to serve real clients. After all, my view of student evaluations is influenced by my historically informed expectation of how kindly I myself will be graded.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have long thought that polling alumni five or ten years after graduation would be particularly valuable for law schools. Law school is, after all, preprofessional education. Students spend all that time and money in order to obtain a marketable skill. For just that reason, they are not in a position to assess the true value of any course or teacher until they have been in practice.

Larry Rosenthal
Chapman University School of Law

9/30/2008 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many schools do ask students what grade they expect to receive in the course. It has all the flaws of self-reporting and even in reputedly easy classes some students are unduly pessimistic and others are unduly optimistic. The absence of interim grading measures aides that self-delusion.

As to polling alums, this is fraught with difficulty. Low response rates, fading memories, and selection bias among responders hurt. From my experience, there is a very high correlation between students evaluation scores and alumni evaluations. They remember who they liked at the time.

10/01/2008 12:56 PM  

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