Student Evaluations Critical Review

[This is an unpublished (except for this web site) essay from
2001. –mh]
Student Evaluations: A Critical
by Michael Huemer
Informal student evaluations of faculty were started in the 1960’s
by enterprising college students.(1) Since then, their use has
spread so that now they are administered in almost all American
colleges and universities and are probably the main source of
information used for evaluating faculty teaching performance.(2)
There is an enormous literature on the subject of student
evaluations of faculty (SEF).(3) The following is a summary of
some developments in that literature that should be of special
interest to faculty, with particular emphasis on criticisms of SEF
that have emerged recently. But I begin with the arguments in
favor of the use of SEF.
1. Reliability and Validity of SEF
A test is said to be “reliable” if it tends to give the same result
when repeated; this indicates that it must be measuring
something. A test is said to be “valid” if it is measuring what it is
intended to measure. E.g., a scale that always reads “5” whenever
a red object is placed on it is “reliable” but not “valid” as a
measure of weight.
Most researchers agree
(1) that SEF are highly reliable, in that students tend to agree
with each other in their ratings of an instructor, and
(2) that they are at least moderately valid, in that student ratings
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 2 of 14
of course quality correlate positively with other measures of
teaching effectiveness. In one type of study, multiple sections of
the same course are taught by different instructors, but there is a
common final exam. The ratings instructors receive turn out to
be positively correlated with the performance of their students
on the exam. The correlation is in the neighborhood of .4 to .5,
meaning that 16 to 25% of the variance in one variable can be
explained by variance in the other.
SEF also tend to correlate well with retrospective evaluations by
alumni; in other words, former students rarely change their
evaluations of their teachers as the years pass.(4)
Furthermore, other methods of evaluating teaching effectiveness
do not appear to be valid. Ratings by colleagues and trained
observers are not even reliable (a necessary condition for
validity)–that is, colleagues and observers do not even
substantially agree with each other in instructor ratings.(5)
2. Usefulness of SEF
Instructors who received results of a midsemester evaluation
tended to have higher ratings on end-of-semester evaluations
than those who did not, suggesting that SEF cause changes in
teaching behaviors which result in higher ratings. The
improvement was greatest when (a) the professor’s selfevaluation
was very different from the students’ evaluation, (b)
the professor received professional consultation on the
interpretation of the evaluations, and (c) the student evaluation
forms included specific items (such as, “Professor gives
preliminary overview of lecture”), as opposed to vague items
such as, “How well planned are lessons?”
In spite of the above, SEF have come under fire on several fronts.
3. Grading Leniency Bias
The most common criticism of SEF seems to be that SEF are
biased, in that students tend to give higher ratings when they
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 3 of 14
expect higher grades in the course. This correlation is wellestablished,
and is of comparable magnitude, perhaps larger, to
the magnitude of the correlation between student ratings and
student learning (as measured by tests) described in section 1
above. Thus, SEF seem to be as much a measure of an
instructor’s leniency in grading as they are of teaching
effectiveness. The correlation holds both between students in a
given class and between classes. It also holds between classes
taught by the same instructor, when the instructor varies the
grade distribution. And it affects ratings of all aspects of the
instructor and the course.(6) Many believe that this causes
rampant grade inflation.(7)
Optimists have suggested that this correlation might be due to
the fact that greater teaching effectiveness on the part of the
instructor leads to both higher grades and higher ratings of the
instructor; thus, the effect might actually be a sign of the validity
of student ratings. However, this hypothesis fails to explain (a)
why the correlation also holds among students within the same
class (who presumably are beneficiaries of the same teaching
effectiveness), (b) why it holds between classes taught by the
same instructor when the instructor varies the grade
distribution, (c) why there is a greater correlation between
grades and ratings when one looks at the student’s relative grade
(i.e., the student’s grade in this class compared with his/her
grade in other classes), as opposed to the student’s absolute
grade. These and other facts are explained by the leniency bias
hypothesis: people tend to like those who praise them
(particularly if the praise is greater than expected) and dislike
those who criticize them. The instructor who grades leniently in
effect praises the students, who then like the instructor more.
They then reward the instructor with higher ratings in general.(8)
Despite some dissenting voices,(9) the influence of grades on
student evaluations seems to be an open secret in colleges and
universities. In one survey, 70% of students admitted that their
rating of an instructor was influenced by the grade they expected
to get.(10) Similar proportions of professors believe that grading
leniency and course difficulty bias student ratings.(11)
Student Evaluations: A Critical Review 4/22/21, 11:33 AM Page 4 of 14
4. Dumbing Down Courses
A related complaint many have is that SEF encourage professors
to dumb down courses in an effort to keep students happy at all
costs. In one survey, 38% of professors admitted to making their
courses easier in response to SEF.(12)
Peter Sacks provides a more detailed, though anecdotal picture.
Sacks reports having almost lost his job due to low teaching
evaluations from his students. He was able to dramatically raise
his teaching evaluations and gain tenure, he says, by becoming
utterly undemanding and uncritical of his students, giving out
easy grades, and teaching to the lowest common denominator.
Sacks claims that this behavior is not unusual but is rather the
norm at his college, where students are king and entertainment
is all that matters. An excerpt from Sacks’ book:
And so, in my mind, I became a teaching teddy bear. In the
metaphorical sandbox I created, students could do no wrong, and
I did almost anything possible to keep all of them happy, all of the
time, no matter how childish or rude their behavior, no matter
how poorly they performed in the course, no matter how little
effort they gave. If they wanted their hands held, I would hold
them. If they wanted a stapler (or a Kleenex) and I didn’t have
one, I’d apologize. If they wanted to read the newspaper while I
was addressing the class or if they wanted to get up and leave in
the middle of a lecture, go for it. Call me spineless. I confess. But
in the excessively accommodative culture that I found myself in,
“our students” as many of my colleagues called them, had too
much power for me to afford irritating them with demands and
challenges I had previously thought were part and parcel of the
collegiate experience.(13)
5. Educational Seduction, or the Dr.

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