Course Evaluation Fibs

Students may be lying on course evaluations, say professors. Really, someone actually did a study. The study might be limited in its usefulness, however. According to an article by Staci Hupp in the Des Moines Register:

About a third of students surveyed… admitted they had stretched the truth on anonymous teacher evaluations, which teachers at colleges circulate at semester’s end. A majority, 56 percent, said they know other students who have done the same. Twenty percent of participants admitted they had lied on the comments section of the evaluations.

The findings are sure to stoke an age-old debate over the fairness of teacher evaluations, which factor into pay raises and promotion and tenure decisions. The paper forms are as much of a classroom tradition at semester’s end as final exams, which take place this week at Iowa’s state-run universities.

Well the evaluations factor into things like tenure decisions a tiny amount (at a major research university the course evaluations would work out to compromise less than 10 percent of the factors considered for tenure, though at smaller schools evaluations would likely matter more) but the findings do look interesting. Evaluation forms are one of the few numerical measures of teaching. If students are “stretching the truth,” does that call the whole thing into question?

Well not really. Part of this has to do with the fact that evaluations don’t actually ask students too many questions with answers that really can be false.

Here’s a sample course evaluation. The questions on these evaluations do not ask things like “how many quizzes did the professor assign” or “how many times did the professor raise his voice in class”. It’s all questions like “was the course material was up-to-date, well-organized, and presented in sufficient depth” and “did the instructor appear to be interested and enthusiastic about the subject”. These things are obviously subjective.

Students only “stretch the truth” in order to emphasize how they feel about the professor. Getting a sense of how students feel is the point of evaluations.

And as for that outright lying in the comments section, don’t worry; no one reads the comments anyway.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer