May 17, 2008
Arthur Best on Student Evaluations
Arthur Best, Student Evaluations of Law Teaching Work Well: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, Southwestern University Law Review, 2008
Another article on the deficiencies of student evaluation forms. A couple of takeaway points:
* "data from student evaluation of teaching forms should be used to identify exceptional cases and not to make relatively small distinctions among instructors"
* "precise numerical comparisons between instructors or between different courses taught by a single instructor may often be statistically flawed"
Academics in the fields of psychology and education generally describe student evaluations of teaching as reliable and useful. On the other hand, law professors often criticize them as unreliable and impaired by students' biases. This Article considers resolving these discrepant views by paying close attention to the various purposes for which student evaluations of teaching are used. For some uses, such as guidance for students in course selection, shortcomings of the evaluations would be of slight consequence. For promotion or tenure decisions, despite law professors' skepticism, schools should use the data to identify outlier instructors. Basing conclusions only on large numerical differences among faculty should protect faculty members from unfair consequences caused by students' biases, since the effects of biases (if present) are likely to be relatively small. It is also consistent with the modern consensus among educational researchers.
The Article also reports findings from analysis of a large number of law school evaluation of teaching forms. Virtually all of them use phraseology that ignores the collaborative nature of teaching and learning. They focus attention on the professor, with the unintended consequence of portraying students as passive participants in their education. The Article recommends revising questionnaires to have a balance between terminology that ignores students' roles and terminology that reflects them. With regard to other attributes, there are large variations among different law schools questionnaires. The Article documents those differences and identifies some that may be problematic.
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