As we enter the season of Teaching Evaluations for the term that, for many of us, is winding down (or up, depending on your mood), let us consider two issues:
(1) today's issue: Is the end of the term (but before the final exam) the (a) best, (b) worst, (c) as good as any other time to ask students to evaluate their professor's teaching?
(2) an issue for a not-too-distant future post (to give you time to think about it): What is the strangest comment you have seen in a teaching evaluation? (in your own evaluations or someone else's). I am particularly interested in strange comments that are not entirely off-topic.
A few months ago, a colleague was telling me about the results of a survey of undergraduates taking introductory Science courses at his institution. I was very surprised about the results of this survey (which I will not describe here). I was surprised because the alarming and depressing results were completely opposite to what I have observed (or thought I had observed) in my own classes and in my own department. So I asked this colleague for more information about the survey. How were the questions worded? When was the survey given to the students?
Aha. The answers to both questions explained a lot, and in particular, the one that is relevant to today's post re. the timing of the survey: It was given a few days before the final exam, when students are at their most stressed.
Yes, my colleague said, but if you give students a survey (or a teaching evaluation) after the final exam, most of them won't do it. And you can't give the survey/evaluation too early because the students won't have enough information about the class to respond authoritatively. And participation has to be voluntary, so you can't threaten them with consequences if they don't do the survey (and that might be counterproductive anyway). The only time to get a decent participation rate is just before the final exam.
OK.. but what if that skews the results? (and the people who are interpreting the survey results don't take that possibility into account and assume that there is a crisis because the students seem kind of stressed out?)
Assuming that student evaluations of teaching are going to continue to be employed by universities: If there were a way to ensure that (most) students would do the evaluation, is it "better" to have them do the evaluations just before the end of the term or after they get their grade? That is, is it better to have students do the evaluations when they aren't sure how they are doing in the class or when they know exactly how they did in the class?
And what is meant by "better" anyway? There are various ways to interpret that, but "better" in this context means a time when students will provide the most fair and thorough evaluations, after reflecting deeply on their own role in the learning process and how much they got out of the class.
I don't know the answer, but I do know that students are typically given teaching evaluations at a time when they are feeling a lot of stress about all the end-of-term activities (exams, papers). It would be interesting to know whether teaching evaluations and other surveys of student opinions of their courses would be substantially different after the term is over as compared to just-before-the-term-end. Surely someone has studied this?
12 years ago