Training in China for the AP1000 reactor. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Student Evaluations Are Useless In Professional Training

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I’ve done my fair share of training — I used to do a short courses on EPA and OSHA compliance all over the U.S. — and I have gotten a goodly number of reviews. I even ended up with the highest average of anyone in my firm, even though I was twenty years junior to the rest of them. I happen to be very charismatic as an instructor.

Peter Block, in The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion : A Guide Understanding Your Expertise, argues that training evaluations are usually set up with a particular bias

that cause is in the front of the room [with the speaker] and is in the audience. . . It is our elitist, leadership compulsion reinforced by an entertainment-and-spectator culture that leads us in this direction. [Emphasis in the original]

Thus, we ask questions that reinforce the idea that the speaker is responsible for the teaching and that the audience are passive receivers of learning. He continues, questioning the reasons behind evaluations, arguing here as he does elsewhere that learning and change must come from within through a personal struggle.

My wife, the inimitable Lisa Deam, has gotten a fair share of evaluations, too, before she quit academia. They were uniformly OK. She says that often the students would pick up on truths that she was trying to hide: “doesn’t seem to like teaching”, “seemed afraid at times”, etc. She thought they were insightful if not really useful.

But a letter to Moss Savant in Parade Magazine got me thinking further. In it, a professor at a community college describes two instructors who both teach the same section of a science. The first is thorough, dry and demanding. His classes are laid out with a didactic purpose and his students always do extremely well on standardized tests, but he gets mediocre student evaluations. His peer is the stereotypical absentminded scientist, with ranging lectures, long tangents, and confusing demeanor. His students always do extremely poorly on standardized tests, but he gets very high student evaluations. They think he’s incredibly smart.

“Why does he get better marks,” the correspondent asked, “when he doesn’t actually teach as well?”

College students are young and the young are easily swayed. My experience says that the old are easily swayed by trappings of importance and authority, too. It’s one of the reasons to wear a suit to meetings and to lean back in your chair, not forward. Always lean back. Bite your tongue. Say less than you think that you should. And they think you are a god.

So, if I can manipulate my students’ opinions, then what is the point of their evaluations? Measurement affects what we measure: from the Hawthorne Effect (sorely unsupported recently) to the Observer in quantum measurements, our current world is full of examples of how the very act of measuring changes reality. Sometimes in ways that we are unprepared for.

Ed Schein has argued that 360 degree feedback — where a manager receives evaluations and feedback from his bosses, peers and subordinates — encourages people to find faults that they didn’t see were there before. It’s much like a married couple who are happy, satisfied and content, who upon being asked why they are happy discover that there is no reason at all and it all falls in. Our social fabric is made of very delicate stuff, easily torn and damaged. What we think of as a stable social order can deteriorate into chaos with astonishing rapidity: witness any mob action. By asking students to evaluate their instructors, we make statements about their status, about the status of their instructors.

Student evaluations should be done away with. Let students take responsibility for their own learning. “What are you going to do to get what you want out of this class?”

Image Credit: Training in China for the AP1000 reactor. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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