Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 4/7/2004 5:18 AM
Random Thought: On Student Evaluations

When I put together my post-tenure review book, at the beginning of the two inch thick tome were xeroxes of the latest student evaluations. Not some concocted statistical computation, but the hand-written or typed evaluations themselves, the long ones and the short ones, the good and bad and indifferent, the glowing ones and the damning one, the "what do you think" ones, the mid-term ones, the final ones. Every one of them. No culling out. Over five hundred in all!

Yeah, I've heard all the resistant grumblings about student evaluations: they're popularity contests; best evaluations go to the easiest graders; students aren't mature enough to make mature judgements; students don't know enough to comment on quality of teaching; they're used by administrators to punish or reward. In the words of the King of Siam, "Etc., etc., etc." Of all the unfounded rejecting, self-serving, and defensive reluctant mumblings about student evaluations, the one I find most interesting is the one that says student evaluations don't improve teaching. Well, let me take that one on. I stand here to say that there's a half truth to that. A student evaluation is not a magic wand or handful of pixie dust. It's not the sure fire fix-it from "This Old Academic House." It's is not synonymous with "abracadabra." It won't automatically turn the pumpkin into a coach or the rat into a magnificant steed or the char girl into a beautiful princess.

Of course, a half truth is a disguised half lie. No, there's nothing automatic in the effect of student evaluations. They won't improve teaching if you won't let them, if don't want them to, if you don't act on them. They will if you do. It's your choice. You can be closed to them or you can be open. You can turn a blind eye and deaf ear to them or you can see and listen deeply and sincerely. It's simply just a simple matter of how you choose to look at a student and choose to evaluate his or her evaluation.

I have used a variety of student evaluations long before it was officially required. Thanks to them, my desk floweth over with less-than-neat heaps of student evaluations. It is they which makes my desk top look like the annex to the county landfill and is one of the reasons why my angelic, though neat-picking, Susan won't step foot into my office. Actually, the growing variety of student evaluations is the result of "why don't you" comments and suggestions from student evaluations that have resulted in many a reflective "what if." In fact, the concept, structure, operation, and spirit of the class over the years has developed out from my experimenting "let see what would happen" implementation of student recommendations.

I am constantly, incessantly, every day, pouring over sloppy, tottering stacks of them. I am opening folders, pulling sheets, looking for clues, leaning back and staring at the moldy ceiling, deeply imagining, intently reading and rereading, and listening to their words. Some evaluations are free written comments; some are responses to my own questionaire. There are page-long or more evaluations and short paragraph or one liners; there are seriously taken ones and the not-so-serious taken ones; there are the ones thought through and the ones quickly jotted down; there are the ones given lots of time and the ones not given any time. They are a diverse collection from a diverse gathering of people with diverse personalities and habits and experiences and attitudes. But, every evaluation has something to say and says something. If you know how to read an evaluation, each is an insightful and telling story that helps you to read each student's story.

So, collected and stacked on my desk is a growing array of "so what do you think" evaluations written after we've completed the semester beginning week and a half, community building "getting to know ya" exercises. There are the community evaluations written after each of the five to seven projects. There are the intermittent "how are things going" evaluations. There are the mid-term evaluations. There are the end-of-semester evaluations. There are the notes I have taken from the comments in the daily student journals. And, of course, there are the ones I usually never see or hear, the confidential letters written by students at the end of one semester and read by the students on the first day of class of the next semester.

Often I look at the stacks of loose paper and manila folders, ponder both the time and effort I spend on them, and think. What good is a student evaluation if it isn't resting on the irons bonds of mutual respect, trust, and honesty? What good is a student evaluation if the student feels he or she can't be honest? What good is a student evaluation if in the back of the student's lurks fear of recrimination? What good is a student evaluation if I don't take it seriously? What good is a student evaluation if I don't honestly respect his or her observations, feelings, attitudes, comment, suggestions, and recommendations? What good is a student evaluation if I don't sincerely use it as a proverbial finger on a student's pulse. What good is a student evaluation if I don't use it to become more aware, more sensitive, more mindful. What good is a student evaluation if I don't use it to see and listen more intently? What good is a student evaluation unless I let it truly inform, inspire, and energize me? What good is a student evaluation if it doesn't give me pause? What good is a student evaluation if I can't accept criticism as well as I accept applause? What good is a student evaluation unless it generates some rich inner dialogue, thoughtful reflection, and, if need be, an adjustment of my attitude and action?

If it doesn't do all of that, if I dismiss it with a cavalier "what do they know," if I ignore it with an arrogant "it's a popularity contest," if I reject it with a defensive "it doesn't improve teaching," if I if I find all sorts of reasons and rationalizations and explanations to reject its validity, if it reflects merely a reluctant compliance rather than a deep commitment, all that paperwork is meaningless; all it does is kill trees, fill a report, create a false image of concern, and collect dust.

No, student evaluations will help me help myself improve my teaching and become the teacher I am capable of becoming only if I choose to let them help me.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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