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Are student evaluations pointless and misleading?


Student evaluations of teaching (SET) surveys are used by universities around the world to measure teaching quality, often with consequences for tenure and promotion.

But a growing body of research highlights serious problems with student evaluations. New research suggests that student surveys are adversely effecting value co-creation at universities, and actually causing serious damage to higher education institutions.

The problem with student evaluations of teaching

Here are five reasons we should reconsider how much weight is given to student evaluation surveys, based on research by Montserrat Díaz-Méndez (Universidad de Extremadura, Badajoz, Spain), Michael Saren (University of Leicester, Leicester, UK), and Evert Gummesson (Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden).

1. Students give you higher marks on surveys if you give them higher marks on essays

Image: Student evaluations

Yep, that's right – it's the classic case of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours".

Numerous studies have found that there is a positive relationship between students' grades and student surveys. Which means lecturers can skew student evaluations by giving their students higher marks than they deserve – what's known as grade inflation.

On the other hand, research shows that if a lecturer gives poor marks to a student who has performed poorly, that lecturer will often pay for it in student evaluations – with students being shown to 'punish' lecturers who give them low marks.

2. You can buy your students' favour with perks

Image: buy your students' favour with perks

If you thought that nurturing your students with the resources to pursue the quest for truth and wisdom was the key to make them like you, you can think again.

Research shows that influencing tactics such as bringing snacks to class, letting students out of class early, and having a "fun activity" during the class on the day before the evaluation all have a positive effect on the rating that students give to their lecturers.

3. Students like you more if you're fun, young, and well-dressed

Image: Students like you more if you're fun, young, and well-dressed

Poor fashion sense? Hair going grey? Lacking banter? Answer 'yes' to any of these questions, and the chances are that you're losing marks in your student evaluations.
In one study, students admitted that they looked favourably on traits in their teachers such as being fun, friendly, young, and formally-dressed.

They also highlighted that having a more personal relationship with a lecturer would lead them to award higher scores on a survey.

4. Students give higher marks to some subjects than others

Image: Students give higher marks to some subjects than others

Are you an arts and humanities lecturer? Then according to research, you’ve got it easy, because students in these subject areas rate their lecturers higher.
On the other hand, if you’re a business, economics, mathematics, computer science, or engineering lecturer, you can generally expect to receive a less positive response in your student evaluations.

5. You will be marked differently depending on your gender

Image: You will be marked differently depending on your gender

Research on student surveys and gender has come up with a range of varied, and sometimes contradictory findings.

Some research has shown male faculty superiority, and some has shown female faculty superiority. Some research has shown that students rate lecturers who share their gender higher, and some has shown that students rate lecturers of the opposite gender higher. The findings are not conclusive.

But what is clear is that gender does have an influence on student surveys – and that that influence tells us nothing objective about teaching quality.

What do you think of student evaluation of teaching (SET) surveys?
They are a very valuable tool – let’s keep using them
They are definitely useful – but there are problems with them
They are sometimes useful – but they do more harm than good
They are destructive – let’s scrap them
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Read the research ▶

Read more! "Considering pollution in the higher education (HE) service ecosystem: The role of students’ evaluation surveys" is published in The TQM Journal.

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