Let’s get rid of the bloody things

Giorgio Touburg about the meaning and futility of student evaluations.

Image by Levien Willemse

In the ten years I’ve been a lecturer at this university, the teaching evaluations to be filled out by my students have often put me through the wringer. Although I generally receive pretty decent or even good marks, the variety of comments can be quite startling, ranging from ‘learned a lot, had a good time’ and ‘the tutor did a fantastic job’ to ‘the lectures were god-awful’ and ‘this course is useless’.

The review

Furthermore, students are not always terribly accurate when completing a survey. A professor from a different university once told me that his surveys always include one question on the course-related excursion. Students who provide a serious answer to this question – there is no excursion! – are automatically excluded from the evaluation. It is also worth noting that students who take a survey are not necessarily representative of all the students who have taken the course. Last but not least, I never cease to be amazed at the terrible quality of the questions asked in course/lecturer evaluation forms at an institute that ought to be very knowledgeable on the subject of surveys.

Despite all these objections, EUR puts a great premium on teaching evaluations, such as the ones used to appraise lecturers’ performance. Many tenure-track professors are even subject to minimum appraisal score requirements. I actually encourage my students to provide feedback in my introductory lecture and also invite them to reflect on the subject during seminars. This allows me to steer students in the right direction or to explain things in a timely fashion in the event that there are misgivings about a certain approach. Moreover, students feel like they are being taken seriously when I do this.

'I never cease to be amazed at the terrible quality of the questions asked in course/lecturer evaluation forms'

Which is the great paradox. You see, everyone who has ever worked at a university learns quickly that not all opinions are created equal. Opinions that lack argumentation do not count. If you fail to properly argue your case, your paper will not get through the peer review process. And as a student, you will not pass your exams by citing things you read on Facebook.

Bizarrely enough, all these principles are disregarded when it comes to course/lecturer evaluations, where every vote somehow carries the same weight. Which is why I’m suggesting we get rid of the bloody things. Not only will it make our lives much easier, but it will improve the lives of our students, who often hold way more opinions than can be fitted into one basic questionnaire.

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