Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Student service evaluations 

One of the things you get bombarded with as a department chair are requests for assessment of teaching. Like Eric Rasmusen, I've wondered why we spend so much time on this. The title of this post is my answer: student evaluations do not evaluate teaching; they evaluate the service professors have provided to students. Those are not the same thing.

Look at it this way: What would be the meaning of having a patient fill out an evaluation of her heart surgeon? She could comment on bedside manner or quality of the surgeon's explanations of the procedure and post-surgery recovery process. That is, she can effectively evaluate the service she received from the surgeon as counselor. But what weight would you give to her evaluation of the doctor as a surgeon? OK, so she was under anesthesia, so maybe that's a bad analogy. So try a dentist. The dentist who keeps my kid from screaming as she's brought in for a teeth cleaning isn't necessarily the best dentist, even though my son may love him for the candy he gets as he leaves the office. And you wouldn't know that until years later when the child becomes a man and needs to have dentures before age 30 because the pediatric dentist botched things.

There are some professors who make an impression on you while you're in school who you remember fondly for the rest of your life; there are others who were complete SOBs from whom you later realized you learned a great deal. There is one retired prof from my department, a harsh fellow who required a great deal of his students and was brutal on the ones who didn't read before class. Complaints galore for the old chair of the deparment. But as I talk to alumni in their 50s and 60s, I am amazed how many tell me "boy he was tough, but did I ever learn a lot from him!" I hope someone says that about me some day. (Hat tip: Stephen Karlsson, who has more humorous thoughts on his evaluations.)