May 15th, 2015
Everybody has reasons to hate student evaluations. If they represented the judgments of one individual, rather than being a big heterogeneous data set, we would call that individual sexist. Women face double standards and, often, tougher expectations. Students in some experiments give higher scores to teachers who they think are men. Evaluations may also favor the white and the young, or punish the homely (when we find someone attractive, we tend to rate their other qualities more highly, in what psychologists call the halo effect). And better scores don’t mean that students learned more—not if you go by subsequent performance in sequenced classes (e.g., Spanish 1 and Spanish 2) in which you can measure such things.
Based on such findings, and on her own experience as a language teacher, Rebecca Schuman called evaluations biased and worthless in Slate last year. They are biased. Everyone’s biased. But they’re far from worthless, and now that the end of the school year—the season of student evaluations—is upon us, it’s worth looking again at what’s wrong with them, and what’s irreplaceably right.