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How to improve your teaching evaluations

Academics these days are obsessed with teaching evaluations. These are used to improve teaching quality, to make tenure/promotion decisions and to provide measures of academic output. There are lots of informal ideas as to how one can improve evaluations and what makes them bad.

For example, one claim is that students are supposed to give bad evaluations to middle-aged female instructors because they don’t like listening to their mother! Dress is also a popular concern. A widely-acclaimed lecturer at University of Melbourne told me he maximises his evaluations by always wearing a suit and tie. Another lecturer at La Trobe University has lots of body-piercing jewelry (and a mohawk haircut) and the students love him. I don’t see much of a pattern myself and see these suggestions as myths! The late John Logan of the ANU is supposed to have gained great evaluations for his first year unit even though he failed most people in his class.

I think evaluation procedures are a good idea but I prefer to see them as having an instructive role rather than one that will be a critical determinant of career outcome. If someone gets a bad evaluation then it needs to be looked at by the staff member and lessons drawn. Most universities have Academic Development Units that can help improve teaching skills. Most of us have had both very good and not-so-good evaluations. A bad evaluation is not something that needs to cause a lot of grief but it does need to be addressed.

One of the reasons for skepticism of such surveys is that the results depend on student-level determinants as well as subject-level determinants that inflence evaluation. This was brought out in a paper today at ‘The Quantitative Analysis of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education In Business, Economics and Commerce Forum’ at the University of Melbourne. Forum Proceedings are here. The paper, presented by Joe Hirshberg, was titled ‘Systematic Influences on Teaching Evaluations: The Case for Caution’.

So what should an academic do to get a good evaluation? Well, according to Joe, try to pick classes where students are older since older students are more generous and forgiving than younger students. Also try to give students the expectation of a good grade but, of course, don’t become identified as a grade-inflator. (For startling US data on this see here). Watch out for females because (Surprise! Surprise!) they are tougher than males and, for goodness sake, avoid teaching quantitative courses like econometrics and try to avoid units that have lots of students from Singapore and Hong Kong, who tend to be picky. If you are to be lumbered with a quantitative unit try to make it a low enrollment quantitative unit and try to offer it at the same time that lots of poor-quality instructors are teaching other units in your area.

The general message. There are lots of effects of student and subject characteristics on teaching evaluations so take care in interpreting them.

The rest of the papers at this Forum were a mixed bag. Many had an administrative emphasis that didn’t interest me or were very descriptive. One nice paper by Elisa Birch and Paul Miller looked at the effects of students taking a year off between high school and university (a ‘gap-year’) on academic outcomes. The suggestion was that students with relatively poor TERs got a lot of academic advantage from taking a year off in terms of university outcomes. Some literature suggests this is particularly so if they spend the year in the workforce rather than travelling or drinking in a Carlton pub. About 1 in 10 students now take a ‘gap year’ so this is useful data. It sounds plausible to me. Students without a strong academic orientation might be well advised to take a year in the workforce before they settle into university studies so they can make a better decision about what they want to do. One wonders though if the initial effects of a ‘gap year’ in boosting academic performance will wash out afrter a few years.

Melbourne University is putting a lot of effort into teaching and learning and deserves credit for this. Their Curriculum Commission is undertaking one of the biggest reviews ever in Australian university education. Essentially they propose a reversion to a universal ‘generalist’ education first followed by more specialist degrees. I think this is a sound aspiration and will try to post on this development when I get time.

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