Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ethics of Teacher Evaluations

One of my favorite Sunday pleasures is to go through the New York Times.  And early on in my reading of the Times, I go to The Ethicist column written by Randy Cohen.  I start with the ethical dilemma presented and before reading Randy Cohen’s typically very astute answer, I reflect on my position regarding the issue.  This week’s column is entitled “Grading the Ratings” and begins with a faculty member’s lament that his or her “listing on has a few positive ratings but the majority are from students who gripe about their workload and the density of…[the]lectures.”  The faculty member next asks whether he or she may “suggest” that the “more-satisfied students…post a rating on the Web site.”

I have been working with student evaluations of teaching for all of my professional life.  As a student, I helped start a program at City College. As a faculty member, I was involved in starting the Hofstra program.  And as a Dean and now as Provost, I look at the results of student evaluations very carefully.  In other words, I am an advocate and believer in the importance of student evaluation of faculty as one important source of information regarding teaching performance and teaching excellence.  But I draw the line at  For someone to be able to rate his or her professors, they need to participate in the course being rated .  If the student is not registered for the course and bases his or her evaluation on the opinions of a friend, the rating has no validity whatsoever.  Even if the students making use of ratemyprofessor have taken a course with the faculty member being rated, if there isn’t an appropriate sample ( and critical mass ) of students involved, the rating also has no validity. Ratemyprofessor has no mechanism of assuring a legitimate population is the source of the ratings presented.

I certainly agree with Randy Cohen’s conclusion that “more-satisfied” students should not be asked by the faculty member to post ratings.  Students should not be pressured and results should not be skewed by such pressure.  However, what is missing in the response by The Ethicist is a condemnation of this highly inaccurate mechanism of measuring student perceptions.  Randy Cohen concludes by stating that “even if those whiny evaluations affect course-enrollment numbers or even hiring and promotion, surely your colleagues realize that these sites do not provide scientific surveys of student views.”  Cohen’s conclusion needs to be more definitive.  No inaccurate source of data that can impact hiring and promotion should go unchallenged.

1 comment:

  1. First, a belated congratulations on your blog, which I've only just discovered. As a blogger myself, I know that blogging tests the mind, the wit and the writing ability. In my case, it also leads to many occasions when I regret what I just posted--a slip here, or a wrongly chosen word there, and you suddenly feel pretty miserable after the fact. Still, it's lively and fun and I wish you good luck.

    I concur heartily with your conclusions in your most recent post. The data on RateMyProfessors are completely unsubstantiated, and Randy Cohen is absolutely right that professors have no business asking students to write about them in any evaluation forum--anyplace, or anywhere. That said, RateMyProfessors appeals to students because they're used to its ways. They live in a world of unsubstantiated opinion. Most of them are used to reading anonymously posted opinions, all over the web, without questioning their validity. Frankly, if our students want opinions about particular professors, I think they could do pretty well by approaching students here at Hofstra whom they admire and asking their opinion about any given professor's teaching. They'd at least know the source, and they'd be listening to what we might call "good" or "healthy" opinion. It's a pretty good way to find out if a professor is a good teacher or not.