The beginning of a new semester is always marked by the frenzied course shopping season that lasts for a couple of weeks. Each shopper usually asks herself: Does this class conflict with my overall schedule? Does it really interest me? And increasingly, whether we like the way the professor, or sometimes the teaching assistant, teaches the course shapes our decision. Student evaluations of professors and TAs have thus become an important tool to help students decide which class in which to enroll.
By the end of each semester, it is always a routine for Brown students to fill out different evaluation forms, one run by each academic department and one by the Dean of the College. However, when she goes around shopping for courses, a Brown student is more likely to turn to the Critical Review, which is published by Brown undergraduate students. In one outside and perhaps slightly more irreverent source, ratemyprofessors.com, students give red peppers to those professors they consider hot! Despite the careful design and lengthy seriousness of "official" evaluations, the underground sources still appeal to students more.
Clarity of lectures, relevance of readings and assignments and the fairness of exams are often included in evaluations and ratings. In addition, it is reasonable to argue that professors are becoming more accessible to undergraduate students because the awareness that they are being rated could compel them, especially those professors at major research institutions like Brown, to find a healthy balance between research and teaching.
While student evaluations might help make college life easier, especially during the hustle and bustle of the shopping period, to be able to evaluate professors' teaching performance is a disproportionately huge power granted to students that is unnecessarily complicating the dynamic between teachers and students and negatively influencing the quality of higher education.
The other side of the story could tell you why. Since student evaluations have become an increasingly important part of assessment of the performance of professors, they would be more or less pressured to avoid too many negative student reviews. They have to pay attention to student feedbacks and take measures to improve their ratings. Professors may now have to come up with more diverse methods to cater to students' habits of study than are allowed by the academic and pedagogical disciplines with which they were trained and have observed for most of their lives. If most students expressed aversion to group work in the evaluation, for example, the professor would probably assign a smaller number of group assignments, even if working with other people is an essential skill to be developed in that course.
And though the more formal and official evaluation takes place only at the end of the semester and is purposely timed to avoid more direct interference with professors' teaching plans in the middle of the semester, it doesn't stop the rapid "democratization" of the classroom. I personally witnessed two such "democratic" incidents last year, and both, I believe, eventually diminished the effectiveness of both teaching and learning in the classroom. In one lecture, the professor held a vote to decide whether we were going to have a midterm. Unsurprisingly, we didn't have one for that course. Yet our triumphant feeling soon turned into regret when we prepared for the final exam, because we then realized that midterms are perfect tools to refresh our memories and provide early correction to mistakes.
The second incident involved a TA who was similarly responsive to students' demands: After a daunting midterm, almost every student in my section expressed wishes that the section be more test-oriented. Subsequent sections almost devolved into a guessing game about what questions may pop up in the final when time could have been spent on covering lecture material that is less likely to be included in the exam, but is part of a curriculum meticulously designed by the professor. Grateful as we were that those sessions turned out to be helpful in the final exam, it is deplorable that the TA was pressured to let students set the academic goals for the class — and it is deplorable that given that power to set the goals, the students clearly abused that power and didn't use it to serve their own best interests.
One teacher's opinion on student evaluations published in the New York Times was both curt and yet to the point: "Sorry kids… Education is not business. You are not my customer... You do not get to ‘have it your way.'" In the final analysis, students' evaluating professors opens a back door for the former to design and tailor their own education. But could students, yet to be educated, correctly choose the way they are going to be taught? One fears that this unreasonable and radical autonomy that is granted to students would eventually result in the erosion of academic discipline, and therefore endanger the quality of education. The bittersweet meaning of autonomy is indeed that students, not the professors, must suffer the consequences of the misuse and abuse of student evaluations.
Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at yue_wang (at) brown.edu.