Taking a Look into the History of Student Evaluation of Instructors
Dan Neckar, Kathryin Weast, Cecily Filtz
dneck184@uwsp.edu kweas558@uwsp.edu cfilt290@uwsp.edu
Although the teacher evaluation process and its ramifications may be familiar with students and faculty in the state and here at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, the evaluations have been raising eyebrows on campus since the 1960’s.
The current evaluation process involves an 18 question Likert Scale-type question set rating teachers and the course on criteria based on helpfulness of the instructor, the instructors’ interest in the material, and the student’s opinion on whether or not they thought their courses were good overall.
The effects of the evaluation are felt by faculty and serve as more than a guideline for the teacher to improve. Chapter 4B, Section 3 of the University Handbook states that: "Student and colleague evaluations of teaching, and colleague evaluations of teaching-related scholarship, shall be considered in making decisions on retention, promotion, merit, tenure, salary, and general improvement and recognition."
All student teacher evaluations are based on an 18-question Likert Scale-type question set.
Photo by Samantha Feld.​
The establishment of the evaluations was voted on and approved in 1969 by Student Senate and has seldom been changed. The most recent updates took place in 2007, according to Faculty Senate documents.
The Likert Scale evaluation was not always in place; in 1981 the Faculty Senate recommended that all departments and units adopt certain questions in their student evaluation questionnaires. The questions were to be answered "Using the standard grading scale of A, B, C, D and F." It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that this format was removed from standard teaching evaluations.
Professor of Communication Chris Sadler did not find the old format effective and understands why it was removed. He believed that the evaluations lacked definition or classification as to what each letter grade meant. "Without either of those two things, students are grading professors on what their assumption of each letter grade is and it had no real value," said Sadler.
According to Professor of Communication Richard Dubiel, the evaluations have been updated at least two times in his 27 years at the university. Dubiel remembers one time a question was tossed out because of irrelevance. The evaluations used to ask if "the professor shows great knowledge of the subject material."
"If you’re taking a class how do you know what a great knowledge of the subject is to begin with? It’s sort of a question they’re not equipped to answer," said Dubiel.
Sadler believes that changes were made infrequently because it’s difficult for teachers to make an impact on them individually.
When these evaluations were being proposed by Student Senate, teachers were already skeptical that the evaluations would be effective and hesitant to involve them in personnel decisions. A column compiled in the May 4, 1967 issue of "The Pointer" titled "If You Ask Me," features several faculty members who were asked if they favored an evaluation system being installed on campus.
Overall, there tended to be differing opinions, but there is a clear disagreement on whether or not students are qualified to make evaluations, and none of the professors were inclined to evaluations having an outcome on personnel decisions, as they do today.
Roland Trytten, former faculty of the Chemistry department, was quoted as saying, "the student is not always in a position to evaluate intelligently, particularly as regards the content of a course or the requirements for a major." Trytten went on to say, "Let any evaluation be the result of careful thought, not of inertia or immaturity."
To try to balance this, the current evaluations are grouped by course type. That is, each course is weighted by factors like size, reason for taking the course and how the student expects to be graded.
Although some remain skeptical on whether students are properly equipped to answer evaluations with such serious implications, Sadler feels that students are definitely a proper authority of whether or not teachers are effective.
"Students should have a voice," Sadler said. He believes that "students are good at determining whether they have learned something valuable or not."
Dubiel however said he prefers an open-ended essay question. He offers his own to students for a non-mandated evaluation because it garners more constructive criticism for him to improve on. He said he gives students a blank sheet of paper and asks them to tell him the things they liked about the class and offer suggestions for some of the things they would do differently.
He said that these responses are far more helpful than the university evaluations.
In the 1967 article from the The Pointer, Philosophy faculty member John Zawadsky said that the "best form of evaluation is students talking about teachers over a cup of coffee—or maybe a beer." To this Dubiel said, "If you get students into too personal, sort of a social situation they’re going to tend to tell you only good things."
He added that he likes his "open-ended essay question because it gives students the chance to be constructive since it is only coming to me. I tend to get a lot more constructive remarks, which is far more helpful than just saying they liked the class or learned from it. These remarks give me ideas to change or experiment with."
A Faculty Senate document from 2001 details the change made to allow the results to be posted online: "The Faculty Senate recognizes the desire of students to have access to instructor course evaluation results and their right to view such materials under Wisconsin’s open records law.
Sadler said that even though the teaching evaluations are made public and available for viewing on campus, they do not include the comment sections, which are on the original evaluation sheets. He told me that those sections "are kept private for a professor’s own developmental progress."
Mark Nook is the Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs of the University of Wisconsin System. He is a former Provost and Interim Chancellor of UWSP.
"I’m one that has always believed that it’s really necessary to have student input on faculty evaluations. I’ve always seen them, first and foremost as a way to evaluate my teaching, and then balance them with peer reviews and comments from my colleagues."
Nook emphasized that the evaluations are taken into consideration, but are never the singular reason for decisions.
"As an administrator, I take those evaluations into account but I don’t rely solely on them. They are not weighted more heavily than the information I get from the peer reviews or other members of the department. I think that’s the thing that’s important, both as a professor and as one moves into administration," Nook said.