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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Capability imperfectly captured by TCEs

It’s the season of Teacher-Course Evaluations — time for the professor to surreptitiously step out of the room while students exact their revenge for every class delay, harshly graded assignment and stringent cellphone policy.

Oh, and they probably evaluate the professor’s teaching ability, too, somewhere in there.

Iowa recently incurred national attention after a bill was brought to light that would effectively make the continued employment of professors dependent on these types of student evaluations.

The bill is not likely to pass, as it was introduced almost four months ago and has languished in the education committee ever since. However, it has generated national conversation on the role of TCEs when determining professor effectiveness.

The sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Mark Chelgren, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the bill was inspired by rising college costs nationwide.

“There doesn’t seem to be any [stipulation] where the professor understands that when they leave at the end of the school year, they’re leaving with a couple hundred thousand dollars,” Chelgren said, “but that the students they’re teaching are paying huge amounts of money to be there. … I would say that the professors need to understand that their customers are those students.”

While Chelgren appears to be almost entirely ignoring the presence of adjunct professors and graduate teaching assistants — most of whom are hardly leaving each school year with “a couple hundred thousand dollars” — his argument revealed a much more insidious perspective.

Yes, students are paying to attend university, and many are paying through the nose. But that only entitles them to a good education, not good grades. For many filling out TCEs, those lines are blurry. While some students may be mature enough to recognize that a harsh grader does not make a bad teacher, others may not be.

Professor Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, published a study about the effectiveness of course evaluations. His team found that, while students can evaluate some aspects of teaching, TCEs are “at best tenuously connected” to evaluating teaching effectiveness.

This comes about as a result of various factors: Response rates may be less than 100 percent, making students who are particularly satisfied or upset with a course being more likely to fill out the evaluation. Sample sizes for smaller classes are smaller and more prone to bias.

Furthermore, it is not statistically possible for every professor to be “above average,” even if they are a perfectly fine teacher. Student interest in the courses affects evaluations. The fact that freshmen have less experience than seniors affects evaluations. The list goes on.

There are new studies being published every year that show that ratings of “effectiveness” can be incredibly subjective and depend on factors such as race and gender. White, male professors get higher ratings, even when all else is held equal.

For example, in a North Carolina study where students took the same online course, they ranked a female professor higher when she pretended to be male, and a male professor lower when he pretended to be female.

The effectiveness of TCEs can swing the other way as well — from a record that is too harsh to a record that is too soft.

“If I knew my course evaluation could get someone fired, I wouldn’t change the way I fill them out,” said Ian Barton, a UA pre-business freshman, when asked whether he would grade more harshly if he knew a professor’s retention rested on his evaluation. “I wouldn’t want to purposefully fire someone.”

Some students could go even further than Barton and, in an effort to view tough teaching situations with maturity, sugarcoat their evaluations — making them an even less effective metric.

Should teacher course evaluations be taken into account when evaluating professors? Absolutely. But these evaluations should occur holistically. More importantly, the concept of “student as customer” needs to be considered very carefully.

Perhaps it’s noble of the Iowa lawmakers to consider students mature enough to balance their evaluations. But, it could also be an incorrect assumption.


Maddie Pickens is an economics freshman. Follow her on Twitter.

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