Student Evaluations: Measure of Teacher Effectiveness or Popularity?

October 1, 1983

What do our students think of our teaching ability? Each semester students are asked to evaluate their professors' teaching competence. This is a fairly recent development. Prior to the late 1960s the teaching competence of college music instructors was rarely evaluated in a systematic or formal manner. Decisions regarding teaching ability for determining tenure, promotion, or salary increase were typically based on hearsay, a professor's collegial interaction (e.g., involving such behaviors as deference and respect) or his or her appearance and demeanor.1 Inferences concerning an applied or ensemble instructor's teaching were typically based upon one's own performing ability and/or the quality of performance by students.

During the late 1960s significant changes occurred in higher education in response to students' demands for a greater role and participation in university deliberations.2 One such change was the use of student evaluations of their instructors' teaching effectiveness. Today, student evaluations are systematically employed throughout the nation when making decisions regarding the promotion, tenure, renewal, and salary increases of college music professors.

These faculty evaluation forms or rating scales have become quite popular among college and university administrators. The forms seemingly provide an objective, quantitative, fair and efficient method of evaluating music faculty. Evaluation forms have become so readily accepted because they permit academic music administrators to base their faculty personnel judgments and decisions regarding teacher effectiveness on quantifiable data while simultaneously showing that something is being done about improving teaching.3 Given the widespread appeal and use of student evaluations to measure a music instructor's effectiveness, it behooves every music faculty member to be aware of the current research relating to student evaluations.

Do our students see us as we see ourselves? Obviously, the answer is no. The research indicates that most professors do not view their teaching as their students view it. Two studies, one by Centra and the other by Blackburn and Clark, show a lack of agreement between faculty self-ratings and student evaluations.4 Generally there is a tendency for faculty to give themselves better ratings than their students do. In fact approximately one-third of the professors rated themselves significantly higher than students did. In contrast only about 5 to 6 percent gave themselves much lower ratings. Other studies by Webb and Molan, Davenport, and Centra suggest that professors and students tend to agree about the pattern of the instructor's strengths and weaknesses (e.g., strongest point, next strongest, etc.) but disagree about the level (i.e., how strong are the strong, how weak are the weak).5

There is a noticeable disagreement between faculty and students on items such as the instructor's concern for and helpfulness toward student progress, and the students' feelings of freedom to ask questions and express opinions. On these items faculty tend to rate themselves much higher compared to their students' ratings. The greatest instructor-student congruence relates to how well prepared the instructor is for class and the extent to which the course stimulated interest. In general the research indicates that faculty members do not view their effectiveness as their students view it.

Many faculty members believe that their colleagues' rating of their instruction provides a more professional and valid assessment than students provide. One study showed that, based on classroom visitations and evaluations by professors' colleagues, 94 percent of the faculty were rated excellent or good, thus indicating that it is difficult if not impossible for faculty to make discriminations in their colleagues' teaching effectiveness. Because colleague evaluations would at best be based on one or two classroom/rehearsal or studio observations and at worst on mere hearsay and/or personal bias, colleague evaluations are usually not considered accurate.6

Other faculty members advocate the use of alumni evaluations to establish their teaching effectiveness on the idea that alumni are more mature and have gained insights that current students lack. The evidence does not support this idea. Two studies compared faculty ratings by students who had just completed their courses to the ratings of alumni who had been out of college for up to 10 years.7 These studies show that evaluations by students currently enrolled are strikingly similar to alumni evaluations. Given this similarity coupled with the general difficulty of obtaining alumni evaluations, there appears little justification in obtaining evaluations from both students and alumni.

However, the views of alumni may be useful in adjusting the music curriculum or course emphases. For example the alumni's insight into the relevancy of degree requirements may add an additional evaluative dimension not provided by faculty and current students. In summary, alumni opinion of the usefulness of a particular course or program requirement may be more helpful and provide a more useful perspective than their ratings of the effectiveness of a particular instructor.

Many faculty members wonder about the effect of their grading practices on their ratings. There is evidence which suggests that students who are confident about receiving a high grade or who feel the instructor grades higher than they originally expected, reciprocate by "grading" the instructor and the course higher.8 Dennis Scheck feels that an instructor who permits students to obtain "easy and/or high grades" will actually receive high student ratings.9 Joan Hocking conducted a study to determine how changes in students' grade expectations during the semester affect their evaluations of instructors and courses.10 She concluded that students evaluate instructors and courses on the basis of personal feelings which they bring to the course, grading expectations, and interest. She raises the point that college instructors can influence student evaluations by meeting student grade expectation and raising the students' level of interest. Another study which seems to confirm Hocking's work shows that students who anticipate a higher grade in a course tend to rate the instructor higher than students who are expecting a lower grade or were unsure of their "grade status" in the course.11

It could be argued by some that the apparent relationship between student grades and the ratings of instructors merely shows that the students who learn the most—presumably warranting the higher grades—value the instruction and instructor the most. This argument may contain some truth, but it also points to the problems of student evaluations of faculty, namely, that the instructor who teaches courses which are difficult (often requiring real effort on the students' part) and perceived as threatening (such as many music theory and history courses) will tend to obtain lower ratings than faculty members who teach less threatening and challenging courses. How many students, one wonders, have difficulty with the course materials, find the course boring and thus conclude that the instructor is somehow responsible and deserves a low evaluation? Unfortunately, many students transfer their own shortcomings to the instructor.12

There is empirical evidence which supports the notion that student rating forms are highly subjective, rely too heavily on opinion, reflect the students' grade expectation and only test the degree to which the students like the teacher.13 In essence they measure popularity rather than teaching effectiveness.

However, some do find merit in these evaluation forms. For example, Peter Gessner has found a positive correlation between the amount learned and the rating of the instructor.14 Therefore, he believes that student ratings are a good index of teaching performance. Others find merit in the use of student evaluations and generally consider them to be valid and reliable indicators of teaching competence of college instructors.15

According to Edward Le Comte, the use of student evaluations of instructors has helped to eliminate the "old professorial arrogance and distance and unquestioned authority" and have encouraged more student-instructor interaction and freedom, thus making the classroom more humane.16 Student evaluations provide reactions for the instructor who in extreme cases is unusually boring or is totally unfair, for example, in his grading practices. Additionally, student evaluations, when made public, provide assistance to students in the selection of courses and faculty on large campuses where multisection courses are common.

But these advantages do not compensate for the numerous disadvantages of student evaluations which have been discussed, namely, that students tend to evaluate instructors and courses based on personal feelings which they bring to their courses—interest and grade expectations—rather than on the basis of some generally agreed upon, objective criteria of effective teaching.17 Additionally, there is evidence which shows that evaluation forms have turned classes into popularity contests. The "easy" instructors and/or "entertaining" subjects rate higher on student evaluations than more demanding instructors of more rigorous courses. As Curry has stated, "The most popular instructor is not necessarily the best."18 These evaluation forms frequently are used as a simplistic solution to a complex problem: determining teaching effectiveness.

The greater the emphasis placed on student evaluations in making crucial personnel decisions (i.e., salary, promotion, tenure), the more likely a faculty member will need to choose between upholding academic standards or retaining his job. Music administrators who place too much reliance on student evaluations may unwittingly be encouraging either grade inflation or developing a show business type of music faculty.

Given the numerous problems inherent with the use of student evaluations of faculty, it is recommended that academic music administrators and faculty who wish to use student evaluations for personnel decisions consider supplementing student evaluations with additional evidence of professorial teaching ability. For example, the development of new courses and/or the revision of current courses are evidence of teaching competence. These kinds of instructional activities requiring effort and research frequently enhance a music department's instructional offerings while generating renewed student and faculty interest in the revised course. The development (or revision) of course materials, instructional modules, computer-assisted instruction, slide or tape presentations, and programed instructional materials should likewise be considered when assessing a faculty member's instructional ability.

There are other aspects of teaching which are too often overlooked during the evaluative process. One's instructional involvement with music students can take several forms. For instance, chairing dissertation or thesis committees and working with students on directed studies are additional indices of a professor's involvement with students. Developing additional opportunities for students to perform or providing extra assistance in the acquisition of certain music skills (e.g., sight singing, ear training, or conducting "help" sessions) should be viewed as another means of establishing one's teaching effectiveness.

Efforts in recruiting and retaining music students are not only indications of an instructor's teaching efforts, but should be highly valued, particularly in light of the realities of declining enrollments in some music schools. Finally, advisement activities, all too frequently ignored, are another important aspect of a music professor's teaching responsibilities. Quality advisement in the areas of course selection, degree specialization, and career counseling is becoming all too rare. A faculty member's role in advisement can provide the most important lessons for music students. These advisement activities offer invaluable assistance in the formative years of a musician.

College teaching consists of numerous dimensions of activities and responsibilities. An evaluation of a music professor's teaching effectiveness should be based on an array of evidence and not limited to a single evaluative source such as student evaluations.

1Dennis C. Scheck, "The Use and Abuse of Student Evaluations of Teaching Effectiveness," College Student Journal 12 (Fall 1978), 1.


3Leon W. Zelby, "Student-Faculty Evaluation," Science 183 (March 29, 1974), 1270.

4John A. Centra, "Self-Ratings of College Teachers: A Comparison with Student Ratings," Journal of Educational Measurement 10 (1973), 287-295; R.T. Blackburn and M.J. Clark, "An Assessment of Faculty Performance: Some Correlates between Administrator, Colleague, Student, Self-Rating," Sociology of Education 48 (1975), 242-256.

5W.B. Webb and C.Y. Nolan, "Student, Supervisor, and Self-Ratings of Instructional Proficiency," Journal of Education Psychology 46 (1955), 42-46; K. Davenport, "An Investigation into Pupil Rating of Certain Teaching Practices," Purdue University Studies in Higher Education 49 (1954); John A. Centra, Two Studies on the Utility of Student Ratings for Improving Teaching, SIR Report, No. 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service, 1972).

6John A. Centra, "Colleagues as Raters of Classroom Instruction," Journal of Higher Education 46 (1975), 327-337.

7A.J. Oruckers and H.H. Remmers, "Do Alumni and Students Differ in their Attitudes Toward Instructors?" Journal of Educational Psychology 42 (1951), 129-143; John A. Centra, "The Relationship Between Student and Alumni Ratings of Teachers," Educational and Psychological Measurement 34 (1974), 321-326.

8Kent L. Granzin and John J. Painter, "A New Explanation for Students' Course Evaluation Tendencies," American Educational Research Journal 1 (Spring 1973), 115-124.

9Scheck, loc. cit.

10Joan M. Hocking, "College Students Evaluation of Faculty are Directly Related to Course Interest and Grade Expectation," College Student Journal 10 (1976), 312-316.

11Charles R. Kline, Jr., "Students Rate Profs in Accord with Grade Expectations," Phi Delta Kappan 57 (September 1975), 54.

12Jerome Curry, "Students Generally Lack the Critical Ability Necessary for Faculty Evaluation," College Student Journal 10 (Winter 1976), 306-311.

13Irene R. Kiernan, "Student Evaluations Re-Evaluated," Community and Junior College Journal 45 (April 1975).

14Peter K. Gessner, "Evaluation of Instruction: A New Explanation for Students' Course Evaluation Tendencies," American Educational Research Journal 10 (1913), 115-124.

15Norman Eagle, "Validity of Student Ratings: A Reaction," Community and Junior College Journal 46 (1975), 6-8.

16Edward Le Comte, "Does Student Power Corrupt?" National Review 26 (1974), 1166.

17Hocking, loc. cit.

18Curry, op. cit., p. 307.

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