When it comes to improving teaching and learning, one of the key pillars is student evaluation.
After all, knowing how a student is performing and why can help teachers foster the strengths of high-performing students and put under-performing students on the right path.
Similarly, when students evaluate teachers, this feedback can be a powerful reflective tool for educators.
But does the student evaluation of a teacher bear any relation to that teacher’s effectiveness? And are student ratings of teachers more of a popularity contest than anything else?
Bradley Busch, a registered psychologist and director at InnerDrive, a UK-based mental skills training company, recently explored these questions in an article published in The Guardian.
Busch referred to the work of researchers from Mount Royal University in Canada, who reviewed a number of related studies. They found there was no correlation between how much students learned and how highly they rated the effectiveness of their teacher.
“The authors of the study stated that: ‘despite more than 75 years of sustained effort, there is presently no evidence supporting the widespread belief that students learn more from professors who receive higher student evaluation ratings’,” Busch wrote.
“Furthermore, they suggested that previous studies that had found a positive link between the two probably used a very small sample [which can make studies less reliable] or suffered from publication bias [where researchers are more likely to publish positive findings than negative ones].”
The authors also highlighted the difficulty of measuring how much someone has learned.
“The entire notion that we could measure professors’ teaching effectiveness by simple ways such as asking students to answer a few questions about their perceptions of their course experiences, instructor knowledge, and the like seems unrealistic,” they said.
Other research has explored why students rate some teachers as more effective than others. Two main factors might be at play here. The first is students’ prior interest in the subject.
“Simply put, if we like a topic a lot then we are more likely to rate the person teaching it as very good. The opposite is also true: most students won’t like the person who makes them work hard at a subject they don’t like,” Busch wrote.
The second factor influencing student evaluation, says Busch, is confirmation bias.
“In previous studies, students received a brief biography of a supply teacher that was identical except for one detail. Half the students were told a teacher was ‘warm’, and half that they had a ‘cold’ personality,” he said.
“At the end of the lesson, students who had been primed to think of their new teacher as warm were more likely to rate them as such, while the other group was more likely to rate them as distant and aloof.”
Busch said prior knowledge of a teacher’s reputation can strongly influence how a new class feels about them, regardless of their teaching practice.
In conclusion, the authors of the review said that universities and colleges may need to give minimal or no weight to student evaluation ratings.
“This is not to say that students’ opinions about teachers are not important, but that they shouldn’t be important criteria for measuring teachers’ effectiveness,” Busch wrote.
“If educational institutions want their students to rate teachers as effective, championing love and passion for a subject is perhaps one of the best ways of doing so.”