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I am considering applying for two new jobs. I love where I am now, but these opportunities would be better for me as they would come with higher compensation and are closer to where I live. One idea I had was to ask a couple of my best students to write a letter recommending me for these positions. Is that ethical? I do not need them per se (I have others I can ask), but I was wondering about this idea. It seems like this school is looking for student-centered instructors, so I thought this might be a way to set me apart. Thoughts?

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    Could you please specify the country? Customs about letters of recommendation vary a lot by country. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 27 at 22:08
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    Whether or not you can do this, I definitely don't think you should. It will not help your application and will probably sink it. – Nate Eldredge Oct 27 at 22:08
  • @NateEldredge: I'd say a place where this sinks an aplication has definitely failed. – Thomas Oct 27 at 22:15
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    Could you please edit the question to clarify whether these students are your current or former students? – Ben Crowell Oct 28 at 13:36
  • @Thomas They haven't failed at all. The answers explain why asking students for references shows poor judgement of the staff-student boundary, (e.g., current students may feel they can't say no to somebody who has power over them; former students might want a reference from the asker so there are quid-pro-quo worries). – David Richerby Oct 29 at 8:08
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As others say, there are good reasons not to get reference letters from students: they are biased to please you, don’t know how to write references, and it might be perceived as cherry picking (you’re in fact an awful teacher but one or two students like you).

If you want to offer insights about what students think of you, why not use your teaching evaluations? If you’re indeed an excellent educator, this should reflect in your evaluations. It’s also acceptable to offer snippets from written course evaluations: while this is still a bit of cherry picking, at the very least it’s unbiased. However, I would check your institution’s policy regarding this practice. Some universities are ok with it, others may not be.

Finally, if you want to show you’re a great educator l suggest indicating how you go the extra mile: participating and organizing student events, mentoring, volunteer work etc.

Good luck!

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    Thanks! I appreciate your answer. Unfortunately, I haven't gotten any official teaching evaluation results from students at all since I have been at my current institution. No one has really been able to tell me why, but from what I have heard, it is not just me. – Brad Oct 27 at 23:59
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    In that case @Brad I’d suggest getting references from department heads/deans that’d attest to your teaching greatness... – Spark Oct 28 at 2:36
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    @Brad Does your institution use end-of-term surveys for the students to fill out evaluating their lecturers' teaching? If so, have you been told what your score on those was? They're usually one of your Key Performance Indicators, so I'd be pretty concerned if they're not giving you access to them - like "brush up your resume and start looking for another job somewhere else right now" concerned. – nick012000 Oct 28 at 9:04
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    To be fair, all letters are cherry-picked by design (but of course that still leaves your other good points). – xLeitix Oct 28 at 14:45
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    @Mehrdad Huh? You'd quote them in your teaching statement and/or covering letter. – David Richerby Oct 29 at 8:20
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It's not a good idea, for several reasons. First, even if you ask students who are literally former students, they themselves may need or want a recommendation letter or similar from you in the future, so they are coerced.

Second, almost surely students have no idea how to write effective letters of recommendation for any purpose... There are often-implicit stylistic expectations.

Third, in particular, often letters of recommendation should concern predictions for the applicant's future, based on the letter writer's prior experience with such future-predicted-from-past. Students will not have any such information (e.g., how likely the applicant is to succeed in grad school, as an extreme case).

Fourth, the people reading your file will wonder why you did not have more senior people writing letters, no matter what the students say. The people reading those letters will suspect you of having dubious judgement about how things work...

Even if you've not had student evaluations of your teaching, hopefully (?) some faculty member in your department will have visited one of your classes, and can give an opinion on your teaching (based on broader experience than any student would have).

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    Where in the world do other faculty members visit one's classes? Is this a thing in the US? – Thomas Oct 28 at 6:51
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    @Thomas It's a thing in Australia, at least in primary/secondary education. Not sure about tertiary, though. – nick012000 Oct 28 at 9:01
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    @Thomas, yes, in the U.S., e.g., at my research-oriented big state university, more-senior faculty visit a few of the junior faculty classes to form an appraisal different from student evaluations, which are also required nowadays. – paul garrett Oct 28 at 12:54
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    @Thomas Yes, this is also a thing at my research-oriented big state university, and has been at least since I went up for tenure 15 years ago. – JeffE Oct 28 at 14:04
  • @JeffE: Wow, that's great! We neither have mandatory student evaluations nor anybody caring at all about how a new instructor teaches. – Thomas Oct 28 at 16:35
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From my perspective (as a student who has for many year been involved in students' union work and higher education quality and development), I would not recommend it. Although I very much appreciate the weight you give to the students' opinion, I see a number of potential negative consequences - but of course all of them are dependent on the system or country you are working in.

Firstly, I think it would be very difficult for these students to actually say no. The dependency of a student on their teacher for evaluation and grades goes further than I think most university employees realise. My experience is that students are, with or without reason, still very much afraid to do anything that might upset their teachers. Saying no to such a question is basically equal to saying that you are a bad teacher, which is the last thing a student want to say to someone who will set their grade or influence their further career.

Secondly, I believe that it would not tell your prospective employer very much, as every teacher will have some students that really like them and others that don't. As long as you have picked which students write the letter of recommendation it will not actually say anything on the proportions between these groups.

If you want a letter of recommendation from the students (which in itself, I want to stress once more, indicates that you have an interested in the best of the students' and are probably a committed teacher) I would recommend contacting the local students' union or students' association. They hopefully are independent enough to give an "objective" letter, and if they have the time and the resources to contact students, they can provide something of this kind. For this reason, in my students' union we award different prizes to appreciated teachers and mentors, which apart from showing general appreciation and gratitude for often hard and unrewarded work effectively fills this exact purpose.

  • The course evaluations should of course be submitted anyway. However, that there is a bias is an inherent feature of a recomendation letter: The readers should exect that one took the best recommendator for them. – Thomas Oct 27 at 22:33
  • Thanks for your answer. I should have been more clear that it would be former students only that I would ask, but I still think it is probably a bad idea. – Brad Oct 28 at 0:00
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It is never ethical or appropriate for someone who has power over someone else (you determine their grades) to ask that person to do anything that is not already determined by the nature of the specific relationship that defines that power.

You can ask your students to do particular assignments. You cannot ask them on dates, for loans of money, to renovate your house, baby sit your children, or to write you letters of recommendation.

For "Instructor", try substituting "Judge", "Doctor", "Therapist", "Manager", "Law Enforcement officer", and then substitute any other actions that are not specifically defined by those roles and think carefully about the possible implications.

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I wish this was not a bad idea (but it is).

You could consider writing a paragraph in your cover letter or teaching statement wishing that you could ask students to recommend you but know you can't. Then perhaps describe the progress some particular students made, and why you think you helped that happen.

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I would personally lean to NOT soliciting such letters.

Most schools have some sort of standardized course evaluations. Thus, your teaching record sort of speaks for itself. If you feel the need to highlight some issues, perhaps you can quote comments from your course evaluations, and use them to put together a nice story. That said, everybody will be aware that such a story will be using cherry picked comments.

As a graduate of a program, since left, I have been invited to submit a tenure letter for a prof up for tenure. I assume the tenure boards have a procedure for getting a list of potential student support letters and fairly choosing who they invite to submit.

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In my opinion, this is ethical if and only if it is clear that there are no (positive or negative) consequences for the students if they accept/decline/write positive/write negative things. In particular, if you will still grade your students in the near future, the students may feel pressured to accept and to write a positive letter. This would not be ethical. In this case, you might want to consider asking ex-students instead.

(A random thought: Is it really the best to ask the best students and not some students who made a lot of progress due to your teaching? I don't know the answer to this question.)

  • Thanks for your answer. To me, I think of my best students as the ones who made the most progress. I would only ask former students if I did this, but I think it's probably a bad idea all around. – Brad Oct 28 at 0:01
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I have done this once in the past. I was a graduate student TAing in a course taught by an assistant prof who was applying for promotion (and also tenure at the same time). I was already senior TA for the course at the time, and this was for promotion within the University, where such letters from a senior graduate student could have some weight.

The issue is: what can these students say that will provide insight for an employer? In my case it was easy to talk about the course organization, the undergraduate response to the course and other factors important to a Faculty Dean and a promotion committee, but what context and insight can these students bring to your advantage in the application process?

  • I'm not sure this is really comparable. As a TA, you're in an employee-like role, which is a very different position to being a student taking the class. – David Richerby Oct 29 at 8:17

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