Category Archives: Student Evaluations of Teaching

Student Evaluations of Teaching in Higher Education Fail Everyone

Few organizations have as high a concentration of people with advanced degrees as colleges and universities.

People with doctorates insure that debates and decision making will be tedious and laborious; however, those decisions are as negatively influenced by tradition and biases as you can find anywhere, regardless of how well educated everyone is.

One of the greatest examples of the failures of higher education is the use of student evaluations of teaching (SET), a traditional system whereby students offer feedback on their professors and then those evaluations serve in different ways during the annual evaluations of professors as well as the tenure and promotion process.

What is the problem? Well, this is an example of tradition trumping evidence (and, again, you’d think well educated people would prefer evidence over the inertia of tradition) because research for many years has shown that SET are biased against the most marginalized groups of faculty—women, people of color, international faculty, etc.

Once again, two studies confirm the inherent bias of SET, as reported by Colleen Flaherty:

Two new studies on gender bias in student evaluations of teaching look at the phenomenon from fresh—and troubling—angles. One study surveyed students at the beginning of the semester and after their first exam and found that female instructors faced more backlash for grades given than did male instructors. The other study examined how ageism relates to gender bias in student ratings, finding that older female instructors were rated lower than younger women. The second study was longitudinal, so students were rating the same women more poorly over time, even as these professors were gaining teaching experience.

Both studies suggest that as women become more “agentic,” demonstrating agency via stereotypically male-associated traits, they are punished for violating gender norms with lower student ratings.

Ratings and Gender Bias, Over Time

These studies have some nuances, but essentially, this fits into a very robust body of research that shows SET is harmful for faculty diversity, and thus, for students and colleges/universities:

We are well past time to set SET aside, and admit that tradition is not a valid reason to continue to erode efforts toward diversity, equity, and inclusion through rhetoric alone.


Privilege as a Barrier to Learning

I am deeply skeptical about two things—criticism of “young people today” as if this younger generation is somehow significantly less capable than older generations and student evaluations of teaching (SETs).

So nothing would be worse, in my opinion, than launching into a “young people today” screed based on SETs. Therefore, what follows is intended as an evidence-based observation toward understanding, not a criticism, grounded in both recent SETs and my 20 years teaching at a selective liberal arts university (after teaching 18 years at a rural high school).

My almost four decades of teaching have been in two contexts with significant social class differences. My high school students were mostly working class and poor; my university students are quite privileged in terms of social class but also in terms of the quality of education they received before entering high education (many are from private school backgrounds).

Across both populations, I often am perceived (at first) as extremely demanding, and even harsh (or “mean”).

My high school students, many working class as I was (and I also attended the school where I taught), within a few weeks tended to flip in their opinion of my courses and even me. Many years later, I have very warm relationships with many of those students; and even those who still openly express that they aren’t fans of me as a person confirm that they appreciate the work I did as a teacher.

Achieving that level of connection and warmth with my university students has been rare to mostly absent. My university students, overwhelmingly privileged in many ways, are quite unlike me, having grown up working class and receiving my BA, MEd, and EdD from state universities.

I just reviewed my fall 2021 SETs, and despite efforts to address the negativity (and even antagonism) in my spring 2021 SETs, I once again read a significant amount of negative, angry, and harsh responses to my courses.

A few things are going on, I think. First, I believe the Covid-era has in many ways inflated student stress, which is reflected in the increase of negative comments (a point I am making not to criticize students, but to acknowledge the larger forces at work and how SET data are rarely about teacher quality).

Second, while I reject the credibility and validity of SETs (as reflected in research on the practice), I do think the data say less about teacher quality and more about the students themselves.

Now, putting those two points together allows me to draw some important conclusions about privilege as a barrier to learning.

Before I explore that thought, let me offer a few caveats.

Socioeconomic status is the strongest correlation to measurable student achievement; therefore, wealthy and white students disproportionately are labeled as “good” or “excellent” students.

However, if you dig deeper in that data, you discover that eduction is not the “great equalizer” but a marker for privilege; privilege itself actually trumps having more and so-called better education (extensive research supports that claim); for one example, see the following data:

People born into socioeconomic and/or race privilege tend to navigate and achieve advanced education degrees, but the privilege itself is the primary driver of their “success” (attaining high-paying jobs), not the education.

My university students often have backgrounds in selective private schools, and almost all of them have completed high school as top students (many having made As throughout their schooling).

When I examine the types of things students are critical of and even angry about, I am increasingly concerned that privilege is a barrier to learning even as these students successfully navigate college and continue to earn high grades.

Here are the types of things privileged students are critical of in my courses recently (again, I am not criticizing these students but offering this as a way to describe and understand why they are struggling):

  • Privileged students are disproportionately offended by feedback and requirements for revision*. Living in privilege that contributes to years of praise and success have created students who are very thin-skinned and frail. As I have examined before, many students perceive all feedback as negative. Many of these students want to submit work once and have it immediately praised, and assigned an A. Being show ways to revise and improve, being asked to revise—these approaches trigger students of privilege.
  • Privileged students have a “banking” concept of teaching and learning (that Paulo Freire criticized). In other words, my privileged students view my job as dispensing for them knowledge as capital; I, however, reject the “banking” concept of teaching and see the role of teacher as facilitator. Privileged students tend to resist having their autonomy as learners increased, viewing a teacher-as-facilitator as negligent or even lazy (not doing their job).
  • Privileged students are very skeptical of and often paralyzed by de-grading practices. Grades for privileged students have been positive experiences that confirm their belief that they are “good” students who have earned those grades. People in privilege often interpret success as mostly a reflection of their effort—and not their privilege. Removing grades removes their safety blanket. (One student from last fall claimed they were reduced to crying often in my course due to my non-grading practices.)
  • Privileged students prefer knowledge-based courses to process-and-product-based courses. Although certainly not exclusively so, privileged students seem to view knowledge as “objective” and process/product as “subjective”; therefore, the latter creates anxiety in them that they will not be successful (not make an A).
  • Privileged students perceive “being smart” as something you achieve and not a journey. Since they have often been told they are smart, they can misinterpret “smart” as their being “finished”; being challenged to learn more or, especially, to re-think their learning is perceived as an attack on their Selves.
  • Privileged students are hyper-sensitive to decorum, formality, and tone. While I recognize some of this point is grounded in my personality, I am increasingly aware that some of the tone tension between my students and me is class-based. I despise formality and do my work at a very high level of efficiency; my emails and my written feedback are terse and direct. Privileged students tend to interpret that style as mean, harsh, and discouraging. This issue with tone overlaps, I think, with my efforts to shift responsibility away from me doing work for students and toward students taking agency over their own learning (many students dislike my use of highlighting when I return written work, for example). As one of the most unexpected examples from my fall SETs, a student recommended I start using “Hi” to start my emails.
  • Privileged students cling desperately to playing school and performing as students. Tests, grades, assignment rubrics and grade scales/weights, lectures, etc., are the environment where they have flourished; anything that deviates from these traditional practices creates anxiety—and skepticism about the teacher.
  • Privileged students (like their conservative parents) fear radical ideas and change. This is basic human nature; when the world works for you, you fear change to that system. I am a critical educator and scholar so my approach to ideas and the world are perceived as not just radical, but threatening to their way of life.

In the grand scheme of my career as a teacher, I realize the folly in SETs because, once again, my fall SETs included dramatically contradictory responses side-by-side—praise for my feedback and willingness to help students learn followed by claims that my feedback is “vague” and “mean,” ultimately discouraging the student to learn.

Again, the feedback says far more about the students than my work as a teacher.

None the less, I believe I have turned a corner in my understanding of the complex nature of privilege in the teaching/learning dynamic.

Yes, on balance, of course, privilege is an incredible advantage, but like being labeled gifted, privilege can also be a barrier to learning—and being happy.


Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

As anticipated and predicted, my student evaluations of teaching (SET) included what has become a classic contradiction; in my first-year writing seminar, I received strong praise for my feedback and diligent support for students revising their writing along side a student who proclaimed that I provided no valuable feedback.

I typically share this recurring evidence that SETs are deeply flawed on social media, and I also reached out to students in my upper-level writing/research course since the SETs from that course had a much higher number of negative comments than is typical (again including contradictory responses about my feedback and support for revising).

Several comments on social media—including those by former high school students from decades ago and current colleagues—helped me work past the frustration of anonymous and misguided comments. In short, I want to stress that while SET data lack validity, student comments may offer more insight into the students themselves than the quality of instruction or the teacher/professor.

Students who are critical of a course or a professor are often failing to confront their own agency as learners and likely did not follow through on their responsibilities in the teaching/learning process. This, however, still deserves consideration by teachers/professors who are seeking ways in which to shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher/professor and to the student.

That shift has been a point of tension for my entire career, approaching 40 years, focusing primarily on teaching writing for secondary and college students.

My frustration lies in the disconnect between the enormous amount of time I spend supporting students learning to write (giving detailed feedback, providing resources and support material for writing and revising, and conducting conferences) and those students who both do not fully engage in the workshop model and insist on characterizing their lack of engagement as a failure on my part to provide adequate feedback.

Some of that tension also lies in students conflating my not grading assignments and not being overly prescriptive in writing assignments (few or broad prompts and no rubrics) with “not providing feedback” and “doesn’t give clear directions of what he wants.”

For context, here are the support materials I provide students in order to support their agency as learners:

Based on these materials alone, I think no reasonable person could accuse me of failing to provide enough feedback; certainly “no valuable feedback” seems unfair.

But I need to stress that these support materials are just that, support, and they are provided concurrent with direct instruction in class, textbooks on writing, and my own feedback on their writing and in conferences.

One of my primary goals as a teacher of writing over four decades has been how to foster in students the ability to write and revise when independent of me or any teacher—their agency and autonomy.

Over my career, I have become less and less prescriptive and offer fewer and fewer direct marking on student writing. One strategy I have used throughout my career is highlighting areas needing revision/editing and prompting students to use the support material in order to revise/edit.

I also have increased significantly using questions in my feedback, including asking directly if students have used the support material when drafting or revising.

Something I had not anticipated is that more students are offended by that question, interpreting it as passive aggressive and even “mean.”

In order to teach well, however, I need to know if the student writing is a result of the student choosing not to use the support material or the result of the support material not being effective (note the “REV” and “UPDATED” on many of the materials above since I am constantly revising based on feedback from students).

When I conferenced with my high school students, for whom I had prepared a textbook for revising (now somewhat reproduced here) that allowed me to respond very quickly by placing numbers and highlighting where students needed to revise and edit, I always asked if they used that text that explained the issue and provided revision strategies; if the student said “no,” I sent them back to their desks to work on their own before I provided more feedback.

I want students to revise and edit independently because otherwise I am revising and editing the essay for them.

With my college students, I typically provide feedback and note that they need to address similar occurrences throughout the essay, noting the need to review the writing beyond what I have marked (often, however, I simply highlight recurring areas needing revision).

None the less, I repeatedly stress to students that they are encouraged to request a conference with me if they are uncertain how to revise or edit based on the highlighting or my comments.

At this juncture, I am noticing another tension—students shutting down because they find feedback “negative”; this is the source of students saying that I am “mean” or that the feedback makes them feel “not smart.”

My university is a selective college, and these students have been A or nearly A students throughout high school; they also tend to suffer from the paralysis of perfectionism.

For these students, one of the most difficult responsibilities of them as students learning to write is having to re-imagine what learning is.

Some students want to submit perfect work only so the concept of revision is difficult for them because they are uncomfortable with any of their work being marked “wrong” or needing “correction.” Of course, learning to write means embracing the reality that all writing can and should be revised and edited, even by the most seasoned writer.

For students learning to write, however, feedback and revision/editing are necessary, preferably several drafts over an extended period of time.

One senior from the upper-level writing/research course provided what I think is an extremely perceptive observation about the role of the student learning to write: “There must be a dialogue and extra steps that students must take if they want to excel.”

Some of the tension expressed in my SETs this spring is likely due to the reduced bandwidth we are all experiencing mid-Covid-19. But the difficulty many students face embracing their own autonomy and their role in learning to write is nothing new.

Ironically, while my university and most other universities use SETs to evaluate professors, the best use of that feedback may be as mirrors for students who seek ways to place blame for their not learning at anyone else’s feet except their own.

My job remains finding ways to help students take ownership for their writing and to foster in them the skills and confidence to draft, revise, and edit independently.

That job will continue to be a painful one for me and my students.

Student Evaluations of Teaching: Research and Commentary [Updated]

One of the prevalent contradictions in higher education is the high-stakes use of student evaluations of teaching (SET) despite the overwhelming evidence that SETs are flawed measures of teacher/teaching quality and are often harmful for faculty already marginalized in society and academia.

Here is a collection of research and commentary highlighting those flaws and calling for ending this traditional practice: