Litigation involving student evaluations of university lecturers is a topic I’ve touched on some years ago. Student evaluations are particularly nerve-wracking for a lecturer if she or he is a sessional lecturer (or in US terms, an adjunct lecturer). I spent some years as a sessional lecturer, and it really sucked. It was the lack of a proper office and title in part — a feeling that I wasn’t really ‘part of things’ — but it was also the insecurity of it all. Was I going to get a new contract for the next semester? In what subjects? How many classes would I get this time? In addition, if you are a sessional lecturer, then the renewal of your contract is particularly liable to be at the whim of student evaluations. The same may also be true for lecturers in ongoing positions who are just starting out: contracts may contain a provision that a certain teaching score must be achieved in order to have one’s appointment confirmed.
I like to know what my students think of courses in which I teach, and this past year, I’ve taken to giving my students an informal written feedback form half-way through the semester rather than waiting for the university’s online student evaluation to come through at the end of semester (when it’s too late already to respond to anything if there’s a problem). If there’s something that doesn’t work, or something that needs to be explained better, or if the text is confusing – I want to know so I can address that. Teaching and learning is a two-way process.
But how far should these surveys be used in ascertaining quality of teaching? In another post, I noted that I’d always been skeptical of the use of student evaluations for that purpose. I linked to a post by Dave Hoffmann at Concurring Opinions which outlined a paper which queried this:
…[D]oes “better teaching” improve educational outcomes? The case for its doing so would seem self-evident, but figuring out appropriate metrics is a difficult problem. What is better teaching? and what are better educational outcomes? A new paper highlights these tensions. From the abstract:
It is difficult to measure teaching quality at the postsecondary level because students typically self-select their coursework and their professors. Despite this, student evaluations of professors are widely used in faculty promotion and tenure decisions. We exploit the random assignment of college students to professors in a large body of required coursework to examine how professor quality affects student achievement. Introductory course professors significantly affect student achievement in contemporaneous and follow-on related courses, but the effects are quite heterogeneous across subjects. Students of professors who as a group perform well in the initial mathematics course perform significantly worse in follow-on related math, science, and engineering courses. We find that the academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status of mathematics and science professors are negatively correlated with contemporaneous student achievement, but positively related to follow-on course achievement. Across all subjects, student evaluations of professors are positive predictors of contemporaneous course achievement, but are poor predictors of follow-on course achievement.
That is, well-regarded, young, inexperienced teachers provide better short-term results (hypothesis: enthusiasm), but over the longer term unpopular, older, experienced teachers add the most value.
Of course, it is always possible to have popular, experienced teachers. (I can think of colleagues who are both experienced and enthusiastic). But everyone has classes which just don’t ‘work’ for one reason or another. Perhaps you’re teaching to a curriculum you’d not have chosen yourself. Perhaps its the first time you’ve taught the subject. Perhaps you’ve just got one of those classes which has a bad ‘feel’, where the majority are very unenthusiastic or unengaged. Perhaps some students just don’t like your style. If you’re a sessional lecturer who has drawn one of these classes, you’ve drawn a short straw.
All this is an introduction to an interesting US case to which a friend tipped me off about the other day. Insider Higher Ed has a post about an adjunct US lecturer who sued the college at which he taught after his contract was not renewed, allegedly as a result of a highly critical e-mail from a student:
A regular concern of adjunct instructors is that one or two student complaints — even totally unjustified grievances — can lead department chairs not to renew their teaching contracts.
On Thursday, a Florida appeals court gave a victory to one such adjunct, reversing a lower court’s ruling and finding that the college instructor is entitled to know the name of the student who accused him of being a poor teacher. The adjunct’s contract was subsequently not renewed, and he argued that the name might help him defend against false accusations that he maintains led to the nonrenewal.
The appeals court found that the student’s name in such a case isn’t protected by state or federal law — and that the adjunct was entitled to the name.
Matt Williams, vice president of the New Faculty Majority, a group that represents those off the tenure track, said he was pleased to hear that the adjunct had won the case. “If your employment is on the line, you have to be able to defend yourself,” he said. Williams added that he has heard from many non-tenure-track faculty members that their contracts weren’t renewed after a student or two sent in an anonymous complaint.
Darnell Rhea, the adjunct in this case, sued Santa Fe College, in Florida, where adjuncts work on semester-by-semester contracts.
There was no dispute over Rhea being able to see — without the student’s name — the e-mail complaint sent to the chair. The e-mail accused Rhea of making “humiliating remarks” to students and of using “unorthodox” teaching methods. Rhea denied these charges but said that to truly rebut them, he needed to know his accuser. He said he suspected he could then show why the charges were untrue.
The college denied that it had made its decision not to renew Rhea’s contract based on the student complaint. But the college also refused to release an unredacted version of the e-mail, arguing that it was an “educational record,” protected by Florida and federal privacy statutes. A district court backed the college, and Rhea appealed, acting as his own lawyer.
A three-judge panel unanimously agreed that he was entitled to the student’s name. The decision focused on the idea that education records are about students.
Ultimately the Florida Court of Appeals found that the e-mail from the student was not an ‘educational record’ such that it was protected by privacy statutes because it did not contain information directly about a student; rather, it was directly about Rhea and his teaching methodology. Accordingly, the college will be obliged to disclose the name of the student. The court noted that Rhea’s argument was that ‘he was effectively prevented from defending himself by demonstrating that the unnamed student was not in a position to comment fairly and accurately on Rhea’s teaching methods and classroom conduct.’ It was a matter of due process. Rhea’s suspicion was that the critical review was submitted by a student who had only attended one class, and thus the student was not in a position to comment fairly on his teaching. Fair point, if this was the case. One wonders how the subject can make any sense if you only attend one class? I would think that someone who only attended one of my classes would not have a fair picture of the subject, or of me and my teaching skills. (Apparently when contacted by the media to be told of his victory, Rhea said, “Hot diggity dog! This is amazing!”)
In conclusion, it seems to me that student evaluations can only be part of the picture when assessing quality of teaching. There is a risk with using student evaluations as the sole basis for assessing quality of teaching that they might just measure who is the most popular lecturer, or reward lecturers who ‘spoon-feed’ rather than challenge students in a way which may be uncomfortable or difficult yet ultimately illuminating. (What the students want from teachers does not always mesh with what will help them learn). There should be a mixed system where teaching is assessed by peer review (i.e. other lecturers sitting in on and assessing classes), teaching portfolios and student evaluations. This seems fairer on the lecturer to me.