Student surveys and teaching evaluation methods used are emerging as a hot issue amongst casual academics who rely on positive feedback as they teeter on the edge of unemployment. Just days after writing this post it appeared as the topic on #Adjunctchat. The various locations and institutions of the participants in discussions such as these reveal that the issue extends well beyond Australian universities. It’s concerning that surveys may be poorly constructed. It’s significant that their purpose has become ambiguous. It’s potentially very damaging that this is resulting in a change in standards and expectations.
Student surveys can help us to identify areas that we can work to improve. Agreed. But when it becomes a requirement to share student comments in employment applications or expressions of interest, student feedback takes on a new significance. It seems less about professional development and more about ploys to accrue choice comments, positive reviews and unprecedented popularity.
There is a haze around who actually benefits from asking students to evaluate their teachers. It’s highly debatable that one’s success as a teacher is accurately measurable in a survey. Popularity and likeability are no measure of the learning that has taken place (which sometimes involves tough love). I’m also doubtful that one can offer the most valuable learning experience when there is such a power shift. Tertiary students have become very aware that they assume the role of their teachers’ assessors.
Let’s take a sharper look at how the evaluation process and purpose has reshaped the dynamic of the classroom and student expectations of the casual academic. Some of the changes I have witnessed are:
• Expectation of 24 hour teacher availability and rapid responses
• Softer or generous marking
• Tolerated absences and overlooking the attendance requirement
• Teacher-provided sweets and pizza in the classroom
• Offers to students of work and collaboration
• Self-promotion as an expert in the field
• Students’ difficulties attributed only to classroom instruction provided
• An increase in the number of students requesting teachers to revisit grades in order to make a positive adjustment
This lecturer is throwing out chocolates when we answer questions right … it’s like she is Sheldon and we are all Penny’s [student tweet]
Is this becoming the norm at your institution too? Some of these behaviors may have emerged anyway, but the requirement to report evaluation results to secure future employment casts a large shadow of doubt over the timing and motivation behind the changes. Thus far I have fared well in student evaluations even though I haven’t made concessions (with the exception that I never seem to be off the clock anymore). However, it feels like the pressure has intensified and it’s inevitable that I’ll see a slide in student satisfaction with my teaching unless I succumb to these newly molded expectations.
Then there’s the level of control that the teacher is afforded over much of the standard criteria they are evaluated on. Take for example these questions:
Was my teacher prepared? Did they know the subject material? Do they communicate clearly in a way that you understand?
Try as we might, the subject matter for the tutorial is quite often: not provided to tutors/teaching assistants at all; shared in the eleventh hour so there is no time for thorough preparation; a very different direction to the lecture content which you have based the tutorial on; too much content to cover in the allotted tutorial time.
Then the evaluation criteria that lies more within teacher’s bounds of control relates to questions that are difficult to glean comments from for self-promotion. Was my tutor on time? Yes, each and every day but how does a student elaborate on that? Did my tutor know me by name? Yes, miraculously, although she had less than 12 hours of face to face time per semester with 145 students. Once more, not something the student is likely to expand on or be conscious of what an achievement that is.
Students are so heavily surveyed that it seems an unfair use of their time to administer yet another questionnaire that will take up almost half an hour of a one hour tutorial. Again, how students actually benefit from the teacher evaluations is elusive.
Teaching in other tiers of education is often measured in student outcomes but I’m not sure that’s the answer either. The most prudent approach to evaluation may very well be that it is voluntary, completed outside of teaching time, more immediate, and the results remain completely confidential between teacher and students.