Set for SETS? Student Evaluations of Teaching

Steve Volk, November 28, 2016

Among the relatively few rules that govern what we do in the classroom and how we do it  is the requirement that all teaching faculty hand out evaluation forms “near the end of each semester” (College) or “before the end of each semester” (Conservatory).  In the unstructured, devil-may-care past, each department (and each individual in the department) was pretty much free to design its own evaluation form, at least in the College, and I’ll just stick to Arts & Science here since the Conservatory has its own rules. That somewhat chaotic system, which made cross-departmental comparisons difficult since different attributes were measured and recorded on different scales ranging 3-point to a six-point scale, was put to rest some years ago. The current forms are designed around a standard one-to-five scale in six broad areas which the research has shown to produce (the most) valid and reliable results: 1) course organization and clarity, 2) instructor enthusiasm, 3) teacher-student interaction, rapport, and approachability, 4) workload and course difficulty, 5) assessments: exams, papers, grading fairness, and feedback, and 6) self-rated learning. We have standard rules about how they are to be distributed, collected, and returned to the faculty.

That said, there remains a lot of controversy about the value of such an exercise, not just among those who would argue that students shouldn’t be evaluating faculty at all (by my guess, a relatively small number) to those who think that the forms don’t actually tell us much about our teaching, to those who think that they don’t tell us anything about student learning – which is something we actually should be measuring – to those who argue that the research clearly demonstrates that SETs are significantly biased against many different subcategories of faculty:  women (female faculty in physics in particular), faculty of color, Asian faculty, international faculty who speak “accented” English, faculty who teach quantitative methods courses, and  “less physically attractive” faculty. Continue reading