Published in the October 10, 2014 Noozhawk.
For many of the nation’s part-time or adjunct instructors teaching in higher education, receiving word that they will be evaluated by their students is cause for anxiety, sleepless nights, even panic. For adjunct faculty who are hired semester to semester, student evaluations are often the key component in determining whether they will be going to the classroom or the unemployment office next term.
Increasingly, how students rank a professor is the only factor considered by the administrators who will decide if that teacher will continue working at their college or university.
Being praised by students is music to a teacher’s ears. “Mr. Miller deserves a raise!” one of my students wrote the last time I was evaluated at Allan Hancock College. (Too bad the administrators didn’t take that admonition seriously).
Student evaluations usually involve responding to phrases such as, “The instructor seems knowledgeable of the course subject and materials”; “The instructor makes learning this subject interesting”; “The instructor seems organized and prepared”; “The workload for this course is reasonable.”
The students are asked to respond to these by ranking them from “Strongly Agree” to “Agree” to “Disagree” to “Strongly Disagree.” This is followed by a space for comments, wherein the students can, anonymously, sing the teacher’s praises or vent any anger and frustration they may have.
Few would deny that student evaluations are an excellent way of gauging how well an instructor is communicating the subject matter, or how well they are holding the students’ attention and how the students perceive the learning experience with that particular instructor. A good teacher will take the students’ feedback and comments seriously and from them gain valuable insights into what is working and what is not.
But when a teacher’s employment hangs solely on what students think of them, evaluations become something more than just feedback. Students frequently use evaluations as a way of rewarding instructors they like and punishing those they dislike. How a student feels about an instructor is often decided by how much work the teacher assigns, how lenient or harsh they are with grades, and how strict they are in the classroom. (In one survey, 70 percent of students admitted they rated their instructor by the grade they expected to receive).
Even factors such as the gender, ethnicity and the personal attractiveness of the teacher play a role in how students rank them.
With their livelihood hinging on what students say about them, it should come as a surprise to no one that adjunct faculty frequently pander to their students by giving higher grades, assigning less homework and turning a blind eye to classroom misbehavior. Those who expect more from students — and who may as a result be teaching them more — face losing their jobs either because of poor evaluations or low student enrollment in their classes, while those who may be teaching them less are ranked higher and can expect to keep working. (One study found that highly rated professors actually teach students less — which, paradoxically, explains why they are so highly rated).
As one adjunct commented, “It doesn’t cost me anything to give students a higher grade than they deserve. No student ever complained to an administrator that they got a grade that was too high.” Another said she tried to challenge her students “and they slaughtered me in my evals. Everyone else in the department gives them As, knows they cheat, and lets them out early. I tried to teach, and I’m out of a job.”
Another teacher related that after getting bad student evaluations and coming perilously close to not being rehired, he did an about-face, becoming “a teaching teddy bear.” He gave out high grades, lowered the amount of work he asked his students to do, taught to the lowest common denominator, and “did everything I could to keep all of them happy.” The result? Great evaluations and continued employment. “Call me spineless,” he says, but in his mind, he has the last laugh: He still has a job.
Other teachers relate similar stories: They wait until the students they think will give them high marks on an evaluation are present before they hand out the forms, or wait for the bad or hostile students to be absent. Others refrain from disciplining misbehaving students in a term when evaluations will take place.
That instructors are pandering to their students is supported by another set of data: Students are studying less now than in the past and yet are receiving higher grades than ever before. In 1961, students studied an average of 24 hours a week; nowadays, study time averages 14 hours a week at most, and some surveys find it is even less.
But grades have never been higher. Either the current crop of college students is far smarter than any who came before them — and SAT scores, as well as other data, do not support this hypothesis — or they are being rewarded with higher grades while being given less work to do in order to earn them.
Student evaluations are important, but they should not be the only yardstick by which a teacher is measured, nor should they be the only thread upon which a teacher’s employment hangs. College administrators need to begin evaluating their instructors themselves rather than leaving it up to the students alone.
Teachers should also be evaluated by their peers, others in their discipline who are better able to determine whether an instructor is knowledgeable about a subject than students are and who can better gauge the quality of the subject matter as it is presented. Mentoring programs could be set up to help struggling teachers improve.
Our students, and our educational system, deserve the best teachers that can be provided. But teachers sometimes need to be taught how to teach, and experience can be one of the best means of doing that. If the evaluation process could be made less threatening and seen more as an opportunity for knowledge and growth, there could be less anxiety and less lost sleep when evaluation time comes around.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA