Worth Sharing: We Don’t Trust Course Evaluations, but Are Peer Observations of Teaching Much Better?

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why colleges and universities that claim to take teaching seriously need a comprehensive and fair system of evaluating it.


But, as always seems to happen, the same teaching technique inspired completely contradictory reactions.

For example, while I don’t show too many PowerPoints in English composition, every time I introduce a new writing strategy I’ll throw up a few slides with definitions and examples. One student praised the slides as the most helpful tool for her learning — another called them useless and recommended I eliminate them from the course.

Contradictory statements about my methods I can handle; I’ve seen them all before. But this round of reviews also included a comment from a student who said I didn’t “connect well” with the class. This was a community-engaged learning course in which we took a field trip together to a homeless shelter, spent lots of time in group activities in class, and shared personal perspectives on our understanding of poverty. I also followed my own advice and made a point to arrive in the classroom a few minutes early and engage in informal conversations with students.

So that student’s comment — although the only one of its kind in this crop of evaluations — is very likely to spend the entire summer sticking in my craw.

I’m also a white male in his late 40s, which means that I am usually spared pointed comments about my wardrobe, my voice, or my persona that routinely pepper the course evaluations of female and nonwhite faculty members, as plenty of research has documented.

Over the years, a number of factors — contradictory criticisms, bias against vulnerable instructors, inconsistent response rates — have all been adduced as evidence for why academe should reduce the outsized role that student ratings and comments play in the evaluation of teaching.

To illustrate that point, she walked us through a thought-provoking exercise that demonstrated in sharp terms why student evaluations and peer observations should be considered within the context of a host of other measures. “I want you to make a list,” Miller said, “of all of the different things that you do each week in support of your teaching. Don’t just think about being in class. Think of all of the other activities you do each week that relate to your teaching.”

Here is what I jotted down:

  • Read for class (for the composition course I just taught, I had to read four assigned books and some additional online essays).
  • Prepare my lesson plan.
  • Arrange a class visit to the homeless shelter.
  • Do background research on the subject we were discussing.
  • Grade writing exercises.
  • Create assignment sheets.
  • Meet with students.
  • Grade papers.
  • Respond to their emails.

As the list slowly grew under my pen, the point of the exercise became abundantly clear: Much of the work of teaching — perhaps most of it — takes place outside of the classroom.

Much of the work that we put into our teaching cannot be evaluated, or even accessed, via the two most common strategies that institutions use to evaluate our teaching effectiveness of their faculty: student evaluations and peer observations.

Part of the process ought to include training people in how to assess teaching fairly, or we risk basing promotion decisions on the classroom preferences or gut instincts of the evaluators.

It takes time to evaluate teaching well — and time usually requires financial investment. Those are significant obstacles, and they won’t be overcome unless academe is willing to set aside its reliance on easy but dubious methods and take the evaluation of good teaching seriously.

Source: We Don’t Trust Course Evaluations, but Are Peer Observations of Teaching Much Better?

Be the first to like.


Worth Sharing: We Don’t Trust Course Evaluations, but Are Peer Observations of Teaching Much Better? — 5 Comments

  1. Dear Mrs. Becker,

    For some reason, I cant replay directly to your comment. Sorry about the inconvenience.

    I would like to ask you:
    1. Did you use games in your classrooms or do you know someone who used them? If yes, how did it go?

    2. How long did you use it? In which class (how were the students old)?

    3. Which subject did you teach with it? What part of the curriculum?

    4. Do you know any class that used Minecraft or Kerbal Space Program? If you know the games or you used yourself, what part of the physics (KSP) and computer science (Minecraft) would you teach with them?

    Sorry for bombarding you with so many questions 😀

    If you would prefer it, you can answer me on this email matous.kratina@gmail.com

    Thank you in advance,

    Matouš Kratina
    A student at Österreichisches Gymnasium Prag

  2. Dear Mrs Becker,

    Sorry for commenting under this post without any relevency to it, but I found your website while doing my researcher for my prescientific work and would like to ask you a few questions.
    First of all, I would like to ask if I may use your table, that explains the difference between games, serious games etc., in my work?
    Secondly, would you mind answering some questions, through email for me? It would help me a lot. If you would prefer to do an interview instead, I’m happy to oblige. I’m in CET time zone, and I’m free basically every day from 17:00 CET to 22:00 CET.

    Thank you in advance,

    Matouš Kratina
    A student at Österreichisches Gymnasium Prag

      • That’s great!

        First of all 1. Do you know someone (or you might have done it yourself) who used serious games or games to learn to teach a specific subject? How did it go? Did it work?
        2. More specifically it would help me if you know someone who used kerbal space program to teach physics or Minecraft to teach computer science? What exactly did they use the game for? Did it work?
        And lastly 3. What do you think is the most useful part of videogames that can be used to teach?

        If you would like, you can answer me on this email matous.kratina@gmail.com

        Thank you very much in advance,

        Matouš Kratina
        A student at Österreichisches Gymnasium Prag

        ps sorry, if posted it twice

        • My apologies for taking so long to reply.
          There are quite a few people who have used games to teach specific things, and many have written about it.
          As for Kerbal Space Program, I don’t know of anyone specifically, sorry.
          The most useful part of a video game from an educational point of view really depends on the game.
          For a game like Civilization, the process of nation-building is something that can be learned, even if historic facts can not.
          Paul Darvasi has used Gone Home as a literary study. The Tycoon games have been used for math, and FIFA soccer has been used to help teach English as a second language.
          I would say that often, COTS games are useful as vehicles for learning something not necessarily directly related to the game itself.
          I would also say that a crucial element when using a game for learning is the ‘de-brief’ that happens afterwards. That is often where the significant learning happens as that is when we can help connect the dots for the learners.
          I hope that helps.

Leave a Reply