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On one hand, this seems like the obvious thing to do: no one is going to be able to better testify to your teaching ability than a previous student. On the other hand, I've never heard of anybody ever doing this, and for some reason, it seems a bit silly.

So what does the academic community large think about this? Is it okay to list previous students as references when applying for a teaching position in academia?

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I would guess two most important things about a reference letter would be a) what relevant information about your quality can the reference provide and b) how credible is the reference. While ex-students really are a perfect match for a) if looking for a teaching position, they might not satisfy the b) criterion (just by being an ex-student). However, I'm just a PhD student, and this is just what seems logical to me -- I do not think I am a credible reference in this case, so I'm just posting this as a comment :) –  penelope Jan 17 '13 at 13:12
We have course evaluations at my university (online forms), and attaching such evaluations sounds to me like a good idea, since these are done anonymously. But, I have never applied for a teaching job, so... –  Paxinum Jan 17 '13 at 13:46
“ex-students really are a perfect match for ‘what relevant information about your quality can the reference provide’”: I would even dispute that. Students are not expert in teaching (see my fuller answer below). –  F'x Jan 18 '13 at 21:25

5 Answers 5

I don't see why you couldn't do this, as long as you made it clear what you were doing, but I think it would probably be a mistake unless it is in addition to the usual documentation (teaching evaluations, teaching letter from a faculty member).

At the very least, you would have to choose an unusually thoughtful and articulate student, someone who could discuss what's distinctive and valuable about your teaching. Even if you did that, there would be some concern that the student is not someone with a letter writing reputation they have an incentive to protect, or that you may have chosen a student because you couldn't find faculty willing to vouch for your teaching. However, I think there's a more fundamental difficulty.

Any half-decent teacher can find at least one student every few years who really thinks highly of their teaching. Maybe it's because the teaching style is a perfect match for the student; maybe it's because the student deeply loves the class material and is somewhat awestruck by the professor. However, there's always someone, so getting a great recommendation from a student or two tells little about how the other students felt.

If you have broader evidence too, such as strong teaching evaluations from your students overall and a positive letter from a faculty member, then this would not be a difficulty. (However, if you have these things then the student letter would probably not be needed.)

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I concur, as I commented also on another answer, student opinions would be at best considered "anecdotal", in contrast to systematic statistics of student responses. Further, if only because "it's not done", using a letter from a (former) student as a "reference" very possibly would be construed as your failure to understand how things work. So: no. Quote student remarks in your teaching-philosophy statement, but get teaching references from (senior?!) faculty who're acquainted with your teaching. Everything else misses the mark. –  paul garrett Jan 18 '13 at 0:46
At my university, every tenure and promotion case requires a peer evaluation of the candidate's teaching, written by a member of the department's promotion-and-tenure committee. Promotion committees are prohibited from including narrative feedback from students in these evaluations, for precisely the reasons AnonMath and Paul raise here. –  JeffE Jan 19 '13 at 20:43

I wouldn't recommend doing it, for a simple reason: you want your reference letters to be from indubitable experts, who can vouch for the quality of your work. However, students are not experts in pedagogy. True, they can tell the difference between a teacher who care and one who doesn't, someöne who invests time and those who don't, but that's it. A reference from a student would most likely comment on the

Yet, it's hard to find a good reference that speaks for the quality of your teaching. You could consider:

  • asking the head of a specific program in which you have developed course material (or department dean)
  • asking a colleague with whom you have taught a lot
  • not a reference letter, but close: quoting from a professional evaluation of your teaching (if such exist in your educational system), done by an expert (professor in pedagogy)

In research, you would definitely consider having a reference from your supervisor. So, do the same for the teaching part!

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Many academic jobs (and certainly ones with a focus on teaching) require a teaching portfolio and statement to be submitted with application materials. It is definitely appropriate to include any correspondence from students with this information. The teaching portfolio will also include student evaluations and any other material and thoughts relevant to experiences in the classroom.

I do not think it would generally be a good idea to use a student as an actual reference, however.

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I hire for teaching positions and was about to post this very thing. Instead I will upvote and second. –  Matthew Leingang Jan 24 '13 at 11:51

The look of horror by my PhD advisor said it all when I suggested I could be a referee for him.

This was in a casual conversation as he was applying to get to the next level and we were talking about our career pathways.

I hold a senior executive position in the industry so this was not far fetched in my mind.

Tell me about professional regrets!

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Wow, what a mix of incentives and disincentives :) –  StasK Jan 18 '13 at 20:52

One of the best references written for me was produced by an A+ student of mine. It featured a great level of detail about my teaching style, and clear explanations as to why he thought I was a good teacher. (This guy went on to work on a Ph.D. in the top US school in his field, computer science; no wonder his analytic skills were top-notch.) He wrote this letter half a year or so after having completed my class, and he mentioned some off-class interactions we've had afterwards when I helped him solve his CS problem, so it was clear that we had an effective work relation. Faculty who came to sit in my class to oblige with the required "peer review of StasK's teaching" would write some crap in their evaluation letters, frankly, as their reviews would be way more superficial.

When I was applying for the faculty positions, I would ask the search chairs whether they wanted the teaching letter from my former student, from my mentor on the tenure track, or from the director of a teaching training program I went to in my University (yes, I did have all three handy, and I cared enough about teaching to enroll in such a program). About three quarters said they wanted the student letter.

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