How Accurate Are Teacher Evaluations?

An examination on how much you can actually trust the system and what improvements can be made.
September 10, 2017
9 mins read

Scrolling through the newly opened course catalogue just one year ago, I was simply overwhelmed by all the choices. As an incoming freshman at an out-of-state university where I knew almost no one, I couldn’t determine the best courses from the absolute worst. Many students who find themselves in similar situations, and desperate for feedback, go to various forms of evaluations for any help they can get.

On the other hand are students who have just taken a class and want to share their information. At the end of every course comes evaluations, but beyond that are many other ways to share information. These sources of information exist to be helpful, but often can be muddled under the weight of other variables.

Official Teacher and Course Evaluations

People can feel frustrated or powerless in an academic setting, but there are ways to give feedback and figure out what courses will be the best fit for you; teacher and course evaluations offer a solution. There are many different ways to both give and receive feedback about a course, whether you are trying to figure out what history class would be best for you next semester, or if you want to let a teacher know what you really liked or didn’t like about a class you just took.

However, the issue that arises with this form of information comes with the question of accuracy. Most of the evaluations are anonymous, allowing students to write whatever they wish, which occasionally is unhelpful, harsh and inaccurate as there is no way the comments can be traced back to them. On the other hand, if the evaluations were not anonymous, students would feel pressure to write good things about the course, for fear of backlash and harm done to their grades if the professor saw the unkind or negative things they had to say about the course.

One popular form of evaluation, is the one given to the students towards the end of a course. The professor is not allowed to be in the room when they are being filled out, or to touch the envelope with the completed forms. Who sees these forms usually depends on the university, but it is often administration and the professor of the class.

The purpose of these evaluations is to give students a voice, and let the professors know what they are doing right and what they could improve. However, there is no way to ensure the professor takes the comments seriously, or even reads them at all. Also, many students use evaluation days as a pass to get out of class early, and can tend to rush through them without giving the evaluation or its implications much thought at all. Another issue is that students often like their professors personally, even if the course had areas where it could be improved, leading to biased evaluations that will not help improve the academics of the university.

Evaluations for Students, by Students

On the other side of evaluations, are ones that are made by students for students. These are used for those trying to decide what course to take or which professor they should pick. There are multiple mediums for these evaluations. Some of the more well-known ones include Rate My Professor, an online site that allows students to give feedback on classes they have taken. It also provides those trying to decide on which professor to take a place with information and advice.

College Confidential is another online evaluation available to students. Just as the name suggests, the site is a confidential forum for students, parents and anyone else interested. People can post questions about classes and professors and others respond to the post with information they think to be relevant. Many students use this site when attempting to decide what course to take, or which section of a class is best. This site allows for conversation, multiple opinions and personal, specific questions.

While these evaluations may seem helpful to students, there are also many issues that come from unfair ranking and bias. It has been said before that people are more likely to say harsh and unkind things on the internet and this again rings true for online evaluations. Many who write on these pages may have just received a bad grade, taken a hard test or just simply not liked the subject of the class.

Because of this, the students feel particularly harsh and want to find an outlet, using evaluation sites to warn others off the course or professor. Go to one of the sites listed above, and even the best courses and top tier professor have unfavorable reviews. Not every student clicks with the course being taught, but the class should not be written off.

However, for all the problems evaluations may have, it doesn’t mean they should be ignored. There are some valid recommendations on such sites. One way to tell is if a complaint is consistent, especially if students through the different courses a professor teaches. When using evaluations to choose courses, take them with a grain of salt. Use them alongside other factors like personal preference and recommendations from advisors and peers you trust. Don’t let a few biased opinions scare you away from taking a course you very well could love.

What Can Be Changed

Many question if they can trust the system based on the way forms of evaluation are currently conducted. However, there are changes than can be made to make all forms of evaluations more reliable and accurate. For official evaluations handed out in class, students could be separated so there is no talking and pressure to rank a teacher a certain way.

Students could also be required to go over their answers and explain them with an unbiased third party connected with the university. Professors should also be urged to take these ranking more seriously and actually implicate some of the suggested changes so that students can see their advice being taken seriously.

Online evaluation sites could be improved by requiring verification of enrolment in the class. That way the students know they are getting advice from real students, instead of just someone who has a grudge against the specific professor. While still remaining anonymous, the sites can tighten their restrictions on what can and can’t be posted, so they are more reliable and trustworthy.

While there are many ways that all forms of teacher evaluations can be improved, these take time, effort and even a bit of trial and error. Students looking to pick classes or change the schedule they have already made this fall won’t see improvements. For now, it is important to be mindful about what you read and write on the classes you take. If you are using these evaluations as judgement for what courses to take, remember that not everything on the internet is true! People use such sites to lash out, so read with a critical eye. If you are writing a review or filling out an official evaluation try not to give into pressure or bias, and write something that is productive and helpful, so that future students can trust the system.

Kelly Keglovits, UT Austin

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Kelly Keglovits

University of Texas
Plan II

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