Students should contribute to teacher evaluations

It is standard practice for university students to complete evaluations of their instructor at the end of a course. Yet students in elementary and secondary schools seldom are involved.

The evaluation of independent school heads, in contrast to teachers, often is some version of “360 degree” evaluation, where input is sought from the various publics and stakeholders with whom the head interacts. Students, parents, board-members and others are surveyed and participate in focus groups and one-on-one interviews. How these groups experience working with the head, and perceive her effectiveness, is considered essential information in evaluating the head. It is a strange anomaly, which greatly diminishes the validity of teacher evaluations, that their most knowledgeable and most intensely affected stakeholders – their students – are not involved.

I always look forward to receiving my university students’ evaluations and consider them the most valuable and powerful source of professional development available to me as an instructor. The ongoing evolution and improvement of my courses is mostly due to the feedback from my students. When I, rather than the institution, am having the evaluation done, I do it about one-third the way into the course rather than the end, so that I can consider the feedback in planning and delivering the balance of the course.

Students know more clearly than anyone else what impact the course and instructor have on them.

Do they find the material valuable? Are the classes and assignments engaging, worthwhile and enjoyable? Is the workload reasonable? Do the readings deepen their understandings? Do they find the grading fair? Is the course what the outline had led them to expect? Is the instructor approachable, available and helpful?

When I taught junior high school, I also chose to have those students evaluate the courses I taught, and me as the teacher. The evaluation process I use with junior high students is the same as with those at university, though the instrument is simpler. While I have had little direct personal experience with involving elementary students in teacher evaluations, I’ve seen literature encouraging it. Clearly this requires child-friendly survey formats with questions written in simple language.   Sometimes young students are asked to provide happy-face/sad-face responses. Through my conversations with elementary children, I have no doubt that, appropriately asked, they can articulate how they feel about their teachers, and whether the classrooms are safe, and if they are learning and happy.

One of the objections teachers have to being evaluated by their students is the feeling that they lack the maturity to do so. Over the years, I have had about ten junior high classes evaluate me. No less than my university students, they took the opportunity seriously, and were conscientious, and usually courteous and constructive in their comments. To encourage their engagement with the process, regardless of whether it is with secondary or university students, before they complete the evaluations I tell them how much I value their input, and how student evaluations have shaped my practice. When the evaluation instrument includes opportunities for comments in addition to ratings, I emphasise how important those are in helping me understand just what it is they like or think should be changed. Also when I am the initiator of the process, I promise my students that I will share the evaluation findings with them in our very next class. In that class, we discuss the results, and what I can learn from them and possibly change.

A second objection teachers raise about having students evaluate them is that it would diminish their stature and authority with their students. Teachers are supposed to be in charge. Students are there to learn from them. It is simply inappropriate, they argue, for students to be asked to evaluate their teachers. However, I have found the opposite. Students value having a voice. They feel respected participants in the process rather than mere passive recipients of their teachers’ offerings. They appreciate teachers who seek their input. Provided that the students like and respect the teachers anyway, it increases, rather than diminishes, the regard the students have for them.

Some schools survey parents about teacher effectiveness. Parent responses are considered a proxy for student responses. I think that is largely inappropriate, certainly for students older than, say, grade 3.   The students have much more immediate knowledge of how they are affected by the teacher’s teaching.

There are different ways in which student evaluations of their teachers can be incorporated in teachers’ evaluation by administration. These approaches can range from teachers being encouraged to seek student feedback, design their own survey mechanism and voluntarily share the results with their administration evaluator, through to something like the university method where the school designs and administers the process.

Certainly, student input should not be the sole source of data for teacher evaluation. But to omit this vital source of information from teacher evaluation entirely, limits its comprehensiveness, validity and value.

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