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Editorial: In defense of the student evaluation

As the semester nears its end, the reality of final projects, essays, deadlines and exams looms close by. But with the end of the semester also comes student evaluations, where professors leave their classrooms while students fill in bubbles on a red sheet and decide on the level of proficiency their professor has exhibited over the semester. Students grade professors on the fairness of material, preparedness for class, confidence in knowledge and concern for student wellbeing. Many online studies or higher education boards have published their opinions on the negative effects of student evaluations on professors seeking tenure, but in terms of student-professor relationships, both sides need a space to voice their concerns.

The University of Maine Office of Assessment is in charge of student evaluations of professors, test scoring services, gauging student engagement and much more. Their website states that “student learning outcomes are measurable and reflect specific demonstrated skills that help us improve what and how we teach and how programs can best serve the needs of students.” Student evaluations are an important factor in uncovering these learning outcomes that influence decision making for hiring, course structure and content.

Student evaluations serve as a platform for students to voice their concerns about a certain professor, subject or class. The means in which professors go about structuring their lessons and engaging with students can have a direct influence on the levels of learning students gain.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning developed an assessment model that gauged the influence of student and professor interaction. They found that a positive climate, professor sensitivity, and respect for student perspectives are positively correlated with student achievement. Students themselves are the most accurate interpreters of these factors, and providing them a space to comment on sensitivity, respect and climate ensures that universities are creating the classroom spaces most beneficial to academic growth.

When you give students a voice, you invite them to critically analyze their experiences. Part of the learning process involves taking a step back to examine what works and what doesn’t. Some topics may be taught better as a lecture where students sit, learn and process on their own, while some topics may be better received in a discussion setting, where students are encouraged to interpret, formulate arguments and present ideas. These structural decisions are decided by professors but can be influenced by students who provide feedback on what works for them.

In recent years, the negative influence of student evaluations has come to the forefront. One particularly valid and important point is that student evaluations are often slanted to be more negative and harmful to female professors. A recent study released by the American Political Science Association found that generally, students use different language when evaluating male and female professors. These student biases could impact the hiring decisions of higher education institutions and increase the gender gap in higher education.

It is important to recognize that students may have an inherent bias against female professors, but to decrease the influence of evaluations would hurt students. Instead, institutions should recognize that language discrepancy and incorporate analysis processes that would weed out responses that are slanted simply because of a professor’s gender. One way to tackle this issue would be to change the language and questions asked in student evaluations.

In addition to gender bias, some students also misuse the evaluation process to provide negative feedback in classes where they did not receive a satisfactory grade. According to an article published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, students give more positive evaluations to professors who have an easier grading system. If some professors decide to take advantage of this system, they may alter their grading processes to receive higher evaluations to increase their likelihood of tenure or raises. But a consideration of tone and course performance in comparison to evaluations, as well as requiring students to sign their name, could highlight the imbalances and ensure that evaluations are more fair and objective.

Student evaluations are in no way a perfect system. There are serious flaws that need to be addressed to stop the perpetuation of gender or racial biases in the higher education system. But student evaluations are also instrumental in ensuring that students feel heard and respected in the classroom setting and can provide feedback on the education they are paying for. In terms of moving forward, higher education institutions should consider reforming evaluations or instituting higher levels of analysis to make certain that ratings are fair and represent the accurate performances of professors, while still providing a platform for students to make their voice heard when it comes to their education.


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