Just curious…

This is a question for researchers in the field of science education: has anyone ever looked at the correlation between
1) the average student evaluation score of instructors of lower division undergraduate physics for pre-med students

2) the score of these students on the MCAT, which has a very important physics component (as this is a standardized test, this seems to be more cogent an indicator than the student’s grade in the physics class taught by the instructor).

If the correlation were found to be weak or non-existent (hypothetically speaking), then would one be entitled to ask what exactly student evaluations are measuring ? Would one be entitled to posit that maybe student evaluations do not really measure one’s effectiveness at teaching, as much as at making students feel good about themselves ?

8 Responses to “Just curious…”

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Sorry, no idea, but did you see this?

  2. Odyssey Says:

    *Gasp!!!!* Heresy! Are you suggesting that student evaluations are anything but the font of all that improves the teaching? Careful lest you be burned at the stake by pitchfork-wielding administrators!!

  3. Ian Says:

    I think some of the UofA’s generic ratings are so vague as to be useless. Also, I think it’s harder to rate the first prof you have in university, since by the time you reach 3/400 level you’ve had a number of profs and can rate in comparison at least.

  4. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Cath — yes I have read that but I think it’s slightly different. Although I am not convinced in the least that they really measure what they are supposed to measure, overall I am in favor of student evaluations, it’s what administrators do with them that bothers me.
    Odyssey — oh, no, don’t worry, I know that SE have been “proven beyond doubt to be a reliable and accurate tool to assess teaching effectiveness”, and that anyone wanting to see actual research must surely be a bad teacher trying to get away with slacking off.
    Ian — I taught at two other institutions and UofA does it pretty much like everyone else, and it is fully understood that scores for lower division and upper division and graduate courses are different. Again, students do what they are asked to do, and I have no problem with that. It’s in how the evaluations themselves will be evaluated where the problems lie…

  5. ScientistMother Says:

    I’m not sure how I would feel about teaching evaluations if I am ever in that position, but as as student, I always tried to be as honest and fair as I could. My assessments weren’t about how hard or easy the course was, but how well the material was translated to me, how approachable the PI / TA was, the overall amount of “care” they had about the course…
    Mind you I’m in grad school, maybe I’m not the average student….

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      ScientistMother, to be fair, I think that the majority of students at all levels do try to be as honest and fair as they can. But see, I am convinced that a sufficiently skillful instructor can give students what Propter Doc would call “illusion of competence”. In other words, they are happy with how the course went, maybe they are pleasantly surprised by the fact that a subject which they initially thought would be difficult turned out to be manageable, and reward what they believe to be an effective teacher.

      Problem is, often times one has not really learned as much as one thinks. One simply believes to have learned, because one feels good about the course.
      It certainly did happen to me. I was convinced to have learned the basic ideas of quantum mechanics after my undergraduate physics class in Italy, as I had a great interaction with the professor and fellow students, I could work out the problems that were assigned to us, got a good mark in the end…. but in reality I was awfully confused, having been taught things that were simply wrong. I basically had to re-learn everything on my own in graduate school, largely doing research. So, my initial assessment of that teacher changed a lot over the course of the years.

  6. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Actually that seems like a really interesting area to research. I’d actually love to see the data on that myself.

    I’ve been trying for myself to work out the puzzle of how to make education better. Not as much at the university level, but at the secondary school level.

    I know teachers don’t always love evaluations; I didn’t either when I was a teacher, but at the same time, I know that evaluations did make me a better teacher. For instance, I once got an evaluation that I spent too much time dealing with trouble makers, and I realized right away that that was correct, and that if people were disrupting the course, from now on I just had to send them out of the room because it wasn’t fair to anyone else.

    It seems to me, that often students know better than anyone else can know how good a teacher is at the act of teaching, ie presenting the material, giving constructive feedback, etc. In my opinion, what you experienced wasn’t a person who was bad at “teaching” per se, but who was bad at the subject matter. That person’s lack of quality should have been flagged by assessing his research, not his teaching.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Ruchi, in principle I agree with you but I have to tell you, in almost thirteen years of teaching at the college level I am still to get a single useful suggestion by students, in terms of how to change or improve upon my teaching style. I have written more about it here, but basically, while I think that they can be the only way to spot really problematic and incompetent teachers, the problem with student comments on their evaluation forms, especially in large classes, is that they are statistically insignificant and inconsistent. Specifically:
      1) You are praised and criticized for the very same thing, by roughly equal numbers of students.
      2) The overwhelming majority of the comments does not address your teaching style but your testing, grading, the textbook, class schedule, withdrawal and deferred exam policies…

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