Can student evaluations hinder active learning?

How might student evaluations hinder efforts to engage students more actively in their own learning?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Kevin Lim on Flickr

In a recent study comparing student evaluations of teachers with different levels of teaching experience, the more experienced teachers fared worse off…

“To summarize the findings: because they didn’t teach to the test, the professors who instilled the deepest learning in their students came out looking the worst in terms of student evaluations and initial exam performance. To me, these results were staggering, and I don’t say that lightly.” –  Nate Kornell, Do the Best Professors Get the Worst Ratings? Psychology Today

In my experience students are not especially excited by the prospect of being more engaged with their education. Questions like, “What do I need to do to get an A (or a B or to pass this class)?”, and “is this going to be on the final?” are indications that they aren’t necessarily looking for the deeper experience and they might be a little overwhelmed. So, when we say our class is hard, and that this is a good thing, they are probably rolling their eyes and checking out the schedule for drop and add.

How do we go about rewarding innovative teaching and academic rigor when students are more likely to complain than to embrace such efforts?

Student evaluations need not focus exclusively on perceived teacher performance, but might also ask students to evaluate their own efforts, expectations, and performance. Rather than asking whether the class started on time, or did the instructor seem prepared, the survey might instead focus on student engagement and academic challenge.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) is designed to gather information about the student experience in regards to learner engagement at the institutional level. The questions inform the following five benchmarks of “effective educational practice in community colleges”: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, and support for learners.

By framing questions around the benchmarks we can focus on those metrics we believe are the more valid indicators of quality learning.

Sample questions could include:

I found this course challenging
[ ] Strongly agree [] Agree [] Disagree [] Strongly Disagree

I spent a greater amount of time on my assignments than expected
[ ] Strongly agree [] Agree [] Disagree [] Strongly Disagree

This course provided opportunities for collaboration with other students
[ ] Strongly agree [] Agree [] Disagree [] Strongly Disagree

And more… my instructor was available to answer questions, I received timely feedback on my performance, I was provided links to support resources, etc.

You get the idea.

Student evaluations can potentially offer feedback that is useful in our efforts to improve course design and delivery; while at the same time, encourage new faculty to adopt a more active and collaborative learning style and to embrace innovation as opposed to just “teaching to the test”.


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