Allow me to complain some more about SETs

You might also like reading about the reification of student evaluations. I’ve witnessed this so many times — another thing I detest is the sacred mean, which must climb ever higher, or you’re a bad teacher. It doesn’t seem to matter that students are diverse and there cannot be a single professors who personifies the ideal for every single person. One of the terrible things about is that it assumes our student bodies have the consistency of mashed potatoes, and we just have to find the strategy to teach the mass. How can you even contemplate reducing a complex task like teaching to a single representative number?


  1. Siobhan says

    I know a law teacher who allocates 2 ish hours of their 300 ish hour course to LGBTQ issues and gets slammed during student reviews for “pushing his agenda down their throat.”

    I mean, sure we need a way to give feedback about teachers but this seems fantastically flawed.

  2. asclepias says

    I always hated filling out student evaluations because I was never absolutely sure what the administration/professor wanted from me. Should we have hit more material? Less material? How should I know? Some things my brain just isn’t wired to understand well (like organic chemistry). That wasn’t the professor’s fault. Some things I maybe could have studied harder-again, not the professor’s fault. I saw it as an exercise in wasting my time and not being particularly helpful.

  3. emergence says

    Whenever I have to fill one of these out for a course I’m taking, I always worry that I’ll give a teacher a low score in something when it was actually a problem with my study habits or the like. I can imagine lots of students giving poor evaluations to teachers for classes that the student was doing poorly in. I haven’t really made a habit of filling out the written review portion, but maybe I’ll take a crack at it this semester.

  4. Rich Woods says

    How can you even contemplate reducing a complex task like teaching to a single representative number?

    By never entering a classroom once you’ve passed your MBA or accountancy exams. Or by going straight into politics* without passing through life first.

    *In all fairness to Gove, he did have a career as a journalist before becoming a smug little wanker in another arena.

  5. leerudolph says

    When I started my last university teaching job (lasting 25 years), each department was permitted to evaluate its teachers in its own way. My department (Mathematics and Computer Science) used all-narrative evaluations. They worked very well. Alas, within a few years they had been replaced by the one-size-fits-no-one University-Wide Teaching Evaluation, a long list of tendentious Likert-scale questions with some space allocated to free-form narrative comments (which, however, in my experience—including 15+ years of preparing departmental cases for promotion and tenure, 7 of them as department chair—were used only by the administration for the purpose of cherry-picking negative comments suitable for denying “merit raises” and the like) that had never been validated as measuring instruments (several campus experts on validation were available, but their services were repeatedly turned down) and which were routinely statistically abused.

    I have called the way in which college administrators obsessively reduce one complex task after another to single numbers (carried to 3 significant digits! with standard deviations and all!! even at a “small private research university” where no more than half a dozen courses a year had enrollments as large as 100, and most of the courses in our department, introductory calculus excepted, had enrollment caps of 20 or less!!!) “cargo cult management”. Of course I don’t doubt that a lot of “management” in other businesses is just as cargo-cultish about the dubious measurements they make; but it’s hard for me to believe that any other business has so widespread and deeply entrenched a cargo cult.

    tl;dr: bah, humbug.

  6. microraptor says

    You know one of the biggest flaws in student evaluations? The really bad teachers won’t even get that many because students will drop the class before it’s over.

  7. dontfeedthefred says

    It could be worse…You could teach in a public school district where half your students want to earn an education, while the other half is there simply because the law will not allow them to be anywhere else. Despite this obvious fact, every student will be given a test at the end of the school year, the scores averaged, and then printed in every newspaper in the state as a single-digit guide to the quality of teaching in each school.

    It doesn’t matter how many languages you try to learn in order to help your multi-lingual student body, or how late you stay every day to tutor struggling kids, or how many times you set a strong example of thoughtful, compassionate leadership in the face of foul-mouthed, belligerent teens…all the late night efforts to plan good lessons, the endless hours of assessing student work, the phone calls and emails with worried or angry parents…all is meaningless in light of that single digit.

  8. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says


    My feeling was that the worst part about student evaluations is that the comment portions handwritten. Not only do they not give enough time, but I have really distinctive handwriting, so I wound up holding back with a couple of the teachers that needed it the most.

    (Like the fucking lunatic who, establishing character moment, was well-known for slashing 50% of the points off one student’s otherwise-perfect problem because the student hadn’t written in a formal indicator of the direction of the +Y axis).

  9. carlie says

    The 99% Invisible podcast recently did an episode about the average person and it was fascinating. How the concept was invented, why it became so popular, why it is in so many ways completely bogus. It is focused on physical traits, but applies to mental ones as well.

    (if you have one very knowledgeable student and one very ignorant student, teaching to that “average” serves precisely no one)