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As the title says, do student reviews of teachers actually ever matter?

At least in the U.S most universities I know of have their students evaluate their teachers at the end of each term. I do know that things like tenure, if they do research, or if they are just an instructor plays a role in how weighted these evals are but even so, does anyone know if anyone actually cares or does anything with the reviews?

I've had many teachers of all types and some were notoriously horrible. Every year hordes of students would write lengthy reasons why the teacher was bad, give them very low marks, etc... And yet the teacher has remained.

I do know some teachers who do actually care (the teachers get them a semester later) and they can look at what the students liked/ disliked, etc... Which seems like the only way these evals are used. At least the way it feels to me, the administration (the ones who require these reviews), simply collect them, put them in a file, and never speak of them again.

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I don't think there's any general answer. Different institutions, departments, chairs, deans, etc give different weight to evaluations - some think they're very important, others not so much. –  Nate Eldredge Aug 8 at 18:49
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Agreed. At many SLACs, teaching evals are essential while at some R1s, being told you are a "good teacher" is actually an insult (the implication is that you aren't dedicated enough to your research if you are also teaching well). –  RoboKaren Aug 8 at 20:37
    
In my alma mater, at least for some years, the teaching evaluation didn't include any item about actually teaching. They were "treats the student with respect", "masters the content of the subject", "gets on time". Then, the results will be published aggregated by all lecturers (there is no way to get the feedback for a particular lecturer) and the rest put in the bin. –  Davidmh Aug 9 at 4:09
    
Does this include ratemyteacher.com and the like? –  Simon Kuang Aug 10 at 6:12
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ratemyprofessor is correlated with professionally designed survey instruments — [citation needed] –  JeffE Aug 11 at 4:06

10 Answers 10

Yes the reviews matter in a number of ways. They are generally considered by tenure and promotion committees and consistently awful reviews can prevent tenure/promotion even for someone with excellent research and service. Committees look both at the average/median and the spread/extremes of any numerical scaled questions as well as the open comments.

The evaluations are also used by some people to actually improve their teaching. This is obviously much harder to enforce, but in my experience no one sets out to be a consistently bad teacher.

Very rarely would a teacher be fired based on student evaluations since they have a number of inherent flaws. First the scores and comments tend to be much better in electives than required classes. Scores also tend to be better in small group teaching versus large lectures. Some topics also tend to score higher than other topics regardless of who is teaching. There is also the issue of bias. Student comments can reveal a shocking degree of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Finally, the timing is really wrong to evaluate how much the students learned and how important it was. Asking for an evaluation before the student can see how the class fits into the entire education, and future job, misses so much about what a teacher is trying to do.

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there are many professors who have set out to be consistently bad teachers. –  enthdegree Aug 9 at 3:46
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@enthdegree Citation needed. –  shane Aug 10 at 11:32
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Two comments: At my university, aggregate teaching evaluations are used by some deans to influence department budgets. And the only information available to administration are numerical averages; only instructors can see their own narrative comments. Yes, this is stupid. Even if the instructor reveals them, narrative comments cannot be used in promotions decisions, because they're too easy to cherry-pick. –  JeffE Aug 10 at 17:57

In my department, teaching evaluation numbers are available to the executive committee for use in recommending raises (or non-raises) in faculty salaries. At the college level, these numbers are a required part of the file recommending people for promotion, and the file must also include the numbers for other recent instructors of the same course or similar courses (because it's known that some types of courses generally get better evaluations than others). One of the associate deans is expected to call the committee's attention to any serious problems with a candidate's teaching.

In general, extremely high or extremely low teaching evaluations, if consistent over a number of semesters, have a real effect. Near the middle of the range, they don't matter much.

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It depends on the university/college and the department.

It is sometimes joked that a good teaching award is nicknamed the "Kiss of Death". But by my anecdotal experience, this joke is not so far from the truth at some places. So presumably at such places, the weight placed on student evaluations (when deciding tenure say) is zero. Or perhaps even negative (!) - i.e., literally the worse your students think of you, the better for your tenure decision.

In contrast, at good liberal arts colleges, they are more heavily weighted.

It all depends on how much the particular department cares about teaching. It is difficult to generalize, even restricting attention to the US.

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I have seen teaching evaluations being used to deny promotion to full professor.

That said, they are not always that useful. When I get my evaluations every semester I read them and sometimes they help me improve. But often they are so clearly biased that I get nothing from them: as an example I remember one that said "midterms are nothing like the assignments", and this was a week after a midterm where 3 out of the 5 questions were taken verbatim from the assignments.

I have also been in position to observe that beautiful and/or funny people get above average evaluations, as do easy markers. These facts don't help committees to take the evaluations too seriously.

As for ratemyprofessors, in my own case the comments there are not representative of what you see in the full sample of the in-class evaluations.

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My experience as an University Lecturer is that academia have an entrenched bias verbalised as: "Those who can,do and those who can't, teach". Student feedback of a negative nature should be used to alert faculty that the staff who are teaching may need some professional development in ped/andr-agogy.

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No, for the most part these surveys don't matter. They were marginally relevant 40 years ago, when they first appeared, and have become even less relevant now.

They're generally not useful to the teacher in improving his/her teaching, because they're just numerical ratings. If students give me 3.7 out of 5 on "grades were fair," that doesn't tell me anything useful.

If the teacher already has tenure, they don't affect the teacher professionally.

At the community college where I teach, they don't matter for getting tenure, because tenure is a rubber stamp. At fancy schools, they don't matter for getting tenure, because tenure is based on research.

They also don't matter because they've been overtaken by technology. Students check web sites like whototake and ratemyprofessor; they never see the surveys, whose results are usually not made public. For public schools in the US, myedu.com will tell them grade distributions for various professors.

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At my institution my professor told me that non tenure track profs are suspended if they have an unsatisfactory overall rating, which surprised me. For tenured profs it doesn't seem to matter so much. Tenure track profs might be hindered by consistently low ratings.

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At my college student evaluations were consolidated by prof, course and year. Data included percent of student returning evaluation. One could easily see which teachers had consistently good, or poor, reviews. A very useful guide to selecting this or that professor. A friend decided to ignore numerous reports of "boring, arbitrary and worst professor I have hard here (major university). She was all of those things. Tenured and married to a tenured professor.

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Student reviews may or may not matter depending on the institution, department, and professor.

For a research-active professor at a research institution they will most likely not matter at all in any respect unless they are really outliers...like worse than anyone has ever seen in the department. Even then, I think the result would be the department chair asking them to change.

On the other hand, at a teaching school or for a teaching professor (say, a clinical or adjunct) they can be extremely important and could result in termination.

Those are the extremes, and anything in between is also possible.

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I think the answer depends on the teacher. If the teacher hopes to cover the subject well and is friendly with everyone, the rating should be average and the objective is achieved. But if the teacher wishes to engage the students either to get feedback on the subject taught or to better understand the various needs of the students to further tweak their understanding, then all feedback especially the negative ones, are useful. Alternatively, you can see that some teachers use "kiss the ass" approach in their teaching otherwise negative feedback would affect the renewable of their contracts. In reality, not everyone can claim to understand their students especially those who does not say much during and after classes. I think the feedback is a good outlet for such students and teachers alike. But not all teachers are willing to take risk in teaching. Hence, it is not surprising that teachers are increasing more difficult to to be taught especially those who spend 100% teaching compared to those who have certain % for research and teaching.

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