October 2, 2016

Student evaluations are not related to teacher effectiveness

Organizations and schools often try to assess the effectiveness of education or training courses through evaluation forms. Such forms contains several questions which participants have to answer about the teacher/trainer and the course itself. They can express how interesting they found the course and how good they thought the teacher/trainer was. The assumption behind this practice is that these evaluations are good indications of the effectiveness of the teacher/trainer. Some universities publish these evaluation online for everyone to read.

I have been skeptical about this way of evaluation for a long time. To begin with, these evaluations are often of little use to the teacher/trainer. A relatively low average score could be an indication that the the teacher did not do a very good job but could also be caused by other factors. For example, students may not yet see the usefulness of the topic. Perhaps their enthusiasm is low to moderate at the end of the course but increases later as they have gained more knowledge and experience.

Evaluation can put students in a consumer role

Asking students to evaluate teachers, I fear, also has the disadvantage that it puts them in the role of a consumer. The student is the customer and the teacher the supplier. The implicit deal is: you (teacher) have to satisfy me (student) and I will tell you afterwards if you have succeeded. This consumer role, I am afraid, will undermine student learning. Learning in a classroom or in a training course requires not a judgemental role but active participation. Whether something is learned depends to a large degree on whether the student is actively exploring the topic matter. Putting students in the role of a judge undermines this, I think.

Uttl et al. (2016): no relationship between student evaluations and teacher effectiveness

Empiric studies have thus far shown an inconsistent picture of the use of student evaluations. Previous studies have shown low to moderate correlations between students' evaluations and student learning. A new study by Uttl et al. (2016) shows a different finding. In their paper the authors explain that previous studies have given a skewed picture of the value of student evaluations due to small samples and publication bias.

Uttl et al. have done an up to date meta-analysis which shows that there is no relationship between student evaluations and quality of learning. They argue for abandoning student evaluations as a measure of faculty's teaching effectiveness.

Activating evaluations

Having said this, I would like to add that I do find a different way of evaluation valuable. In this way of evaluating students/participants are not put into the role of a consumer or judge but in a reflective mode of thinking. In this activating way of evaluating questions are asked such as: did you find this course interesting/useful? Which parts did find most interesting/useful? How could you apply what you have learned in order to make progress?


  1. There was a research paper done at the U.S. Air Force Academy that showed that student evaluations of instructors in core (foundational) courses were positively correlated with grades in the course, but negatively correlated with performance in related higher level courses. In other words, the teachers that received lower student evaluations appeared to better prepare their students for more advanced work later. Link to paper: http://www.nber.org/papers/w14081


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