Student evaluations and innovative teaching

STUDENT EVALUATIONS OF TEACHER PERFORMANCE MAY HINDER INNOVATIVE ‘GOOD TEACHING’ PRACTICE: SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM RECENT RESEARCH

Julian Laurens

Recent research on student evaluations of teacher performance suggest, I argue, that assessing teacher performance via narrowly constructed student evaluation surveys designed to produce a quantifiable indicator of ‘good teaching’ may in fact have the indirect consequence of hindering innovation in ‘good’ teaching approaches. The May 2017 study [1] findings are consistent with a growing body of research [2] that shows university students are simply unable to recognise ‘good teaching’ or ‘what is best for their own learning’. The research identifies that students do not reward ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ teaching in the sense of an improved student evaluation mark for that teacher. Indeed, the evidence suggests the biggest factor informing a positive evaluation from a student is the grade the student is given.

On the other hand, as the studies show, student ignorance of ‘good teaching’ exists alongside evidence demonstrating that quality teaching has a positive impact on a student’s grades and learning outcomes. Moreover, when exposed to quality teaching the improved learning outcomes are transferred to subsequent subjects. This effect is consistent with findings from educational psychology: the work of Albert Bandura and other social-cognitive theorists on the development of student self-efficacy is particularly relevant. Worryingly, the research suggests that students who rated their teachers based on marks they received actually did worse on subsequent courses.

The research thus far raises implications for legal education. A specific and immediate issue raised by the findings is that given student evaluations of teaching are used by University and Faculty management when considering an academic’s career progress, there is a real risk that teachers may choose to ‘play it safe’. What incentive is there for a teacher to actually try something new in their teaching given that they will potentially not receive improved evaluation scores, and in fact may be penalised by students for being ‘innovative’?

A limitation is that much of the research so far is from non-law disciplines. There is yet to be a systematic look at how this particular problem with student evaluations does (if at all) apply to an Australian law school. This should not preclude us from taking note though.  Issues surrounding student evaluations generally have long been recognised in law schools. As Roth said (back in 1984), “[e]veryone agrees that evaluations ought to be done, but few are satisfied that it is now being done properly, or meaningfully” [3]. This remains the wider challenge. Elsewhere on this blog, colleagues Justine Rogers and Carolyn Penfold have also begun examining issues surrounding student’s evaluations.

In conclusion, for present purposes, the research may support the argument that over reliance on current narrow neo-liberal/managerialist inspired approaches to student evaluations of teachers at law schools in Australia may actually hinder innovative ‘good’ teaching practice. Current iterations of such practices can indeed appear as mechanisms of academic control, rather than tools that promote mutually collaborative learning environments. The research calls into question more broadly claims by universities to be dedicated to ‘good teaching’ and ‘innovation in learning’. There is a need to explore this issue further in the context of Australian legal education, situating it alongside continuing conversations around what actual good teaching looks like in law for example. I would like to make three brief practical observations at this stage derived from analysis of the research that may assist us to address some of the negative challengeS posed by the findings:

  • Firstly, we should always strive to improve our teaching, and we should be uncompromising in that. We should communicate this commitment to our students;
  • Secondly, we need to do a better job of explaining to students our teaching approach and rationales and how something relates to the learning experience;
  • Thirdly, we need to give students more opportunities to practice and reflect on what they have achieved along the way. Students need to see how they are progressing. They need to be regularly reminded of the value of learning. Royce Sadler’s work on the importance of feedback is worth reflecting on here.

[1] Brian A Jacob et al, ‘Measuring Up: Assessing instructor effectiveness in higher education’ (2017) 17(3) Education Next 68.

[2] See e.g. Michela Bragga et al, ‘Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors’ (2014) 41 Economics of Education Review 71; Arthur Poropat, ‘Students don’t know what’s best for their own learning’ (The Conversation, November 19, 2014) (online: http://theconversation.com/students-dont-know-whats-best-for-their-own-learning-33835 )

[3] William Roth, ‘Student Evaluation of Law Teaching’ (1984) 17(4) Akron Law Review 609, 610.

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One thought on “Student evaluations and innovative teaching

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  1. Thanks Julian, there’s a lot to agree with in your argument.
    The other viewpoint is that without any evaluation, students find it very hard to signal to management who the poor teachers are. Additionally, a teacher who implements a very poorly thought through innovation needs to know the negative reactions of students.
    The issue has a lot to do with what questions the surveys ask (and how useful they are for a particular course), and how they are used by people beyond the teacher. There is a significant problem of disengaged management over-interpreting data – and often data that is not statistically valid.
    Student evaluations ideally need to capture a high percentage of students taking the course, need to have questions tailored to the actual teaching methods and innovations in the course, and need to link quantitative questions with qualitative explanations. The reasons a student agrees or disagrees with a statement like “I felt challenged to learn more in this course” need further explanation – what was the nature of the challenge, did it help them to learn, was it a challenge that was appropriate?
    The evaluations also need to be a genuine dialogue between teachers and students – not an external management tool where both teachers and students feel the exercise is meaningless. If the student’s don’t understand what the question is asking, or what the theory behind the pedagogic approach is, they are unlikely to provide useful responses.

    Julian’s suggestions at the end of the post are really important. If we do as he suggests, I’m confident that students will respond with very positive teaching evaluations. If students feel engaged with their teacher, and feel that the approach in the classroom is designed to help them learn better, then even though it may not be their preferred approach most will accept the reasons and respond positively. Developing the sense of a learning community may help to develop the respectful dialogue an evaluation can be.

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