One student describes a professor as “insanely smart and very helpful.” Another said he has “no clue how to assemble thoughts into a coherent lecture.” Such contradictions are long known to university students who use ratemyprofessors.com or similar websites in choosing courses. These sites demonstrate how individual student judgments can be flawed. Unfortunately, the Iowa State Senate is currently considering a bill that would base professors’ performance ratings solely on student evaluations — and then allow low-rated professors to be fired without potential for an appeal.
This proposal is extremely misguided. It is true that poorly performing professors should not continue to teach and student experience should form a part of performance evaluation, but student ratings do not always correlate with a professor’s teaching ability. The Boccini University economics department found that professors with low ratings actually produced the students who were most successful in later classes. Although very high performing students gave effective teachers better ratings, most students did not like the teaching styles that led to their success — perhaps because it meant more work. Easy ‘A’s may garner high ratings, but they do students no favors in the long term.
An April 28 CNN article about a Texas A&M Galveston professor threatening to fail an entire class of disrespectful students demonstrates the complex classroom dynamics that sometimes occur and that warrant outside evaluation. This particular teacher chose to quit because of his frustrations. In a situation where student evaluations are the sole metric for performance, professors would be forced to pander.
Even in the cases where student ratings accurately reflect a teacher’s effectiveness, there are other issues with this proposal. When schools request student evaluations for professors, the collection rate is not high; in some classes, fewer than half the students complete evaluation forms. There is also the previously mentioned issue of inconsistency. Students in the same class may have very different perceptions of the professor’s performance. It is difficult enough for students trying to get a sense of their professors before the term starts to balance out these disparate descriptions, but it would be ridiculous for Iowa to try to make major employment decisions from them. Professors with middle-of-the-road ratings would be allowed to stay, but it would be difficult to discern the status of those with both positive and negative evaluations.
The qualities students and administrations look for in professors are not always the same, and may not even match the teaching styles that benefit students. While universities should make an effort to weed out bad teachers, Iowa’s proposal is not the right direction. Rather than focusing on any one factor, universities must evaluate professors holistically by using a combination of student ratings, peer evaluations and student portfolios.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 30 print edition. Email Dana Brown at [email protected].