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Stanley Fish on Teaching and Student Evaluations

posted by Scot McKnight
What do you think of Student Evaluations? Is customer satisfaction theory the best way to measure a teacher?

From Stanley Fish

The relationship between present action and the judgment of value is different in other contexts. If a waiter asks me, “Was everything to your taste, sir?”, I am in a position to answer him authoritatively (if I choose to). When I pick up my shirt from the dry cleaner, I immediately know whether the offending spot has been removed. But when, as a student, I exit from a class or even from an entire course, it may be years before I know whether I got my money’s worth, and that goes both ways. A course I absolutely loved may turn out be worthless because the instructor substituted wit and showmanship for an explanation of basic concepts. And a course that left me feeling confused and convinced I had learned very little might turn out to have planted seeds that later grew into mighty trees of understanding.

And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.

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Matt Edwards

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:01 am

I teach courses on Bible Study Methods, the Spiritual Life, etc. at my church. I design them for adult ed.–syllabus, text book, appropriate workload for adult learners, etc.
I always use a course evaluation at the end so that I know how to improve. I am most interested in knowing whether or not the subject matter was clear, whether I held their attention, whether the workload was appropriate, and whether or not I accomplished the objectives that I listed on the syllabus.
If a course evaluation form asks questions like “Was the class good?” or “Was the teacher good?” then they may be a waste of time. But if the teacher is intentional about designing the course evaluation to measure specific areas in which he or she wants to succeed/improve, then they are invaluable.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 2:32 am

I would be interested to hear if anyone has actually changed their minds over the years about who their good teachers were. I don’t think any of my opinions have changed in that regard, maybe if I went back after many years as a more mature student I would have a different opinion of the teaching of each one, but a teacher has to work with what he or she is given. If the students are ignorant and easily bored, a good teacher will know how to communicate on their level and hopefully lift the students to another level and inspire them to higher aspirations.
I don’t buy the idea that students just want answers. What students appreciate is clarity; that’s not the same thing. Fish speaks as someone who finds it difficult to communicate with inferior beings and consequently gets less than stellar evaluations.
My experience in universities is that good research is rewarded but good teaching is not.
captcha: not wiser
I’m starting to believe in the mystic insight of these captchas

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Ted M. Gossard

posted June 25, 2010 at 6:11 am

I do like to be pushed and challenged beyond my comfort zone and to the breaking point. If not, then I tend to think it is a waste of time, though it is not necessarily so. And I want to teach that way.
Clarity is important, and if what the instructor says is unclear, I don’t know how that is helpful at all, unless it makes people work harder to get at the meaning. Like students who don’t speak English doing better at English speaking universities because they work much harder.
The best instruction is that which challenges maybe even in encouraging ways, but challenges us to grow in one way or another. And to do, or enter into the point of the endeavor. And to learn to think critically. To not give the fish, but help one do the fishing themselves, of course.

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Travis Greene

posted June 25, 2010 at 9:05 am

I think as a (serious) student one has a pretty good idea what makes a good teacher. By college you’ve had dozens of instructors of varying quality. My memory is that teacher evaluation focuses much more on the teacher than on the course. If a teacher is constantly late, grades arbitrarily, is contemptuous of students, or is frequently unprepared, the school administration needs to know that.
Of course sometimes the “real” value of a course may come in just the way Fish describes, but come on. That is un-measurable.
Besides, I’m not aware of any place that makes promotion/retention decisions solely on the basis of student evaluations. They should be an important ingredient of a much broader evaluation.
I like Fish, but I am frankly suspicious of a professor who doesn’t want to be evaluated by his students.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 9:40 am

Course evaluations as objective measures are statistically very suspicious.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’m not going to say anything substantive here because one of my students might Google me and say something negative on my evaluations. ;-)
I generally get good evaluations, but nevertheless I think what they really measure is how “nice” you are in the classroom, not necessarily whether you’ve taught well.
For an even worse system, check out On that site, the most embittered students self-select as evaluators, after they have received their grades for the semester. Apparently, I’m one of the worst teachers, if not one of the worst human beings, in the universe.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 10:10 am

The value of course evaluations is a tricky thing for me. I tend to agree with Parker Palmer that good teaching cannot be measured on op-scan forms. Especially undergrads, but at times grad students as well, are not in a position to know how what is being done in the class now is preparing them for what will come down the road. I find it interesting when students who hated a given class in the moment come back later to tell me that they now understand why we did in class what we did (or at least confess they wished they had paid more attention). However, we aren’t evaluated by students 10 years down the line, and those revelations don’t bear on promotion and tenure as do student evaluations. Another problem where I teach is that we have moved to an on-line system, which has meant a drop in the number of students who even do the evaluations (from almost 100% when they were done in class, to 50-60% on-line). I am left wondering what the other half of the class thought.
Having said that, I do find it helpful when students use the comment boxes to make specific critiques or offer specific suggestions. I solicit these comments. And I have adjusted at times in light of such comments (though the adjustments, at times, have led other students to complain). I have no illusions that I cannot do better.

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Phil Atley

posted June 25, 2010 at 10:20 am

Anonymous student evaluations began about the time I was an undergrad in the early 1970s.
So did grade inflation.
The post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy is always possible.
In this case, however, I am absolutely convinced that the chief (not the sole) cause of grade inflation is anonymous student evaluations. I supervise our department’s part-time faculty. I see a significant though not complete correlation between GPA given by a teacher in a section and that teacher’s overall ratings in anonymous student evaluations. The handful of non-tenured part-time teachers who courageously grade more rigorously have lower student evaluations, with one or two exceptions.
In my own evaluations over 20 years of teaching I have seen a direct correlation between my post-tenure efforts to hold the line at “C” being average, B above average and reserving As for about 10 % of outstanding students. I began to do this after receiving tenure and have become even more rigorous in holding the line in recent years. My ratings by students fell consistent with the degree of rigor.
I am going to experiment by giving students 2/3 or 3/4 As and Bs which is about what most of my colleagues do and see what happens to my student evaluations.
The correlation between grade inflation and anonymous student applications is not absolute, but it is strong. Especially for non-tenured faculty who teach an increasing proportion of students in larger universities, who need high student ratings to survive, it is very difficult not to succumb to the subtle temptations to grade softer.
No one likes not being liked. Student obsession with grades has increased exponentially since I began teaching 30 years ago. Thus grades become an ever more important component in how students evaluate their teachers. It is very difficult not to slip into grading a tad easier in order to be a tad better liked. And the cumulative effect of these tads is grade inflation.
Another factor is the degree to which one adheres to or bucks dominant Politically Correct trends and various fads in higher education. Those who buck them, by and large, pay a price for it on student evaluations. Students can scarcely be blamed for evaluating teachers largely on whatever the current fads are, since that’s what sets the framework in most of their classes. The outlier teacher becomes the boogeyman.

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Phil Atley

posted June 25, 2010 at 10:26 am

What I just wrote applies to humanities and, probably, social sciences. In the natural sciences, as far as I can see, it’s a different world. But in the humanities, 2/3 or 3/4s As and Bs seems to be pretty common. I’ve had part-time teachers give all As (a 4.0 GPA for a section)–an that was an “award-winning” teacher who got written up in the campus newspaper as a popular, student-admired, innovative teacher. No wonder. The article didn’t mention (because I’m sure the author didn’t know) that the teacher gave out all As. After taking up the portfolio of supervising part-time faculty, I learned about the grading pattern and all of a sudden, I understood why this was such a popular teacher.
NOT ALL POPULAR TEACHERS become popular by handing out As like candy. I’m not saying that AT ALL. Some teachers grade rigorously and have student ratings off the chart. Good for them. Wonderful. God bless them.
I’m just saying there’s a clear correlation; it’s hard to resist going a tad soft in order to be liked and that over the years, it’s led to grade inflation.

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Bob Smallman

posted June 25, 2010 at 10:55 am

I would have rated my seminary homiletics professor rather poorly if I had had the opportunity, because I thought his approach was unnecessarily wooden. In class, his way was the only way.
What I realize now is that he gave me an excellent framework for constructing a sermon. I’ve never preached a message that followed all the details of his “method,” (and I’ve preached many that bore no resemblance to it) but he gave me a solid understanding of one way to approach a passage that has served me well through the years.
What seemed to me at the time to be wooden has become over the years a platform from which I have felt free to innovate.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 11:45 am

Aargh…don’t get me started on this one.
On a coarse grained level multiple choice teaching evaluations can provide recognition of true excellence and warning of real problems. In the physical science (to contrast with Phil’s comments on humanities) I am not sure that the correlation with grades is as strong.
But there is a definite correlation with gender and personality when small differences (0.5 points or so on a 5 point scale) are considered.

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James-Michael Smith

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Double-edged sword I would say.
Some students use anonymous evals to whine, defame or unfairly criticize.
Some teachers are incompetent, alienating or poor communicators and need to be held accountable somehow.
I prefer evals that are not anonymous, but the identities of the evaluators are known only to someone such as the Dean.

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Luke B

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Perhaps evaluations at 5, 10 and 20 year intervals could supplement the immediate evaluations.

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Travis Greene

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Luke B @ 13,
Sure, but then you run into self-selection problems, because the only people who would even think about participating are those who had either absolutely terrible or truly amazing teachers.
I can think of maybe five professors whose names I even remember, and I graduated college in 2006. If I got some thick pamphlet from my university tomorrow asking me to evaluate all my professors, I’d chuckle and throw it in the trash.

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posted June 25, 2010 at 1:08 pm

@NB — Are student evaluations objective? Of course not. Who ever thought they were? But a completely subjective voice is better than no voice at all.
@RJS — I would like to get you started. What is a “coarse grained level multiple choice”?
@Phil — To help prevent grade inflation, give the evaluations before grades come out, perhaps half way through the course.
Here’s an idea better than student evaluations – closed circuit cameras spy cameras in the classroom so I can see my teachers as they interact with the students (my customers). Oh, I can hear the howling already!
Actually, now for each course I am in charge of, I choose an astute student or two from each class who I believe has a good attitude, and I use them as informants about the class. Sneaky but effective in the absence of cameras.
captcha: to(o) pungent
Alright, who’s monitoring my ideas and giving them labels?!

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posted June 25, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Questions like the following marked on a 1-5 scale 1=strongly disagree, 5=strongly agree.
Overall this was an excellent course
Overall the instructor was an excellent teacher
The difference between a “2” and a “4” correlates rather strongly with the quality of the instruction. Look at the result in a course grained manner and it can provide useful information.
On the other hand… The difference between “3.7” and “4.2” or between say, “4.2” and “4.7” is insignificant. The difference says more about personalities and student prejudice than about the quality of the instruction.

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Justin Topp

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Good post that was timely for me. I’ve really enjoyed the comments too.
Evaluations to me seem like a necessary evil. I do know professors who teach (grade?) to the evaluation, which I think is ridiculous. But then again I’m sure there are things that I do that may not be solely for the appropriate reasons. Many refer to evaluations as popularity contests so I’m glad I’m not unpopular… :~) I think it is necessary to be popular, but not sufficient, for what that’s worth.
I like them for the most part, although putting my promotion portfolio together this summer has required some thick and coolly rational skin. I think that they’re a good tool, but only one aspect of what it means to be a good teacher. Hopefully the committee will agree with me. Scot, I think you should volunteer for some FPC work this upcoming year…
The comment about differences between right after the class and years later is a good one. While it will not help our evaluation scores I think that it’s a great boost to our morale, which can’t be overlooked. Hearing students tell us how looking back they realize how much they appreciated the challenge and felt like they learned so much that they could use later on just feels good!

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posted June 26, 2010 at 11:06 am

I see some truth in the post, but acknowledge that good evals do motivate and therefore pay dividends by themselves. But my personal experience at the college level is that the mechanized evaluations prepared by the University have little substance. I understand the need to try and qunatify and store information but those results feel light and of limited value. I encouage my students to make personal comments (anonymously, of course) and many do. These are the REAL evaluations and most meaningful to me–even, and perhaps most especially, the barbs and grenades tossed.

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