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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Rate your lecturer

A lot of people are getting  over excited (not in a good way) about rateyourlecturer the UK version of Rate My Professors. Sure it's tacky and distasteful, but it isn't the end of the world and there are far more important things to get angry about.

At the end of the day you don't have to read the moronic "evaluations" and those who are inclined to provide them are just going to say the same stuff behind your back anyway. If it makes students feel better to say obnoxious anonymous stuff online, so be it, but nobody is forced to take it seriously.

Much more important are the internal student course evaluations. These do deserve to be taken seriously and the  real fight is to make sure this information is used properly and that its limitations are properly understood both by the bureaucrats and by the people in departments who have power over other people's working lives.

The first thing to understand is that the basic data are very noisy. It's heavily sample selected - you have to be pretty motivated to be bothered to fill the questionnaires in and it often tells you more about the evaluator than about what is being evaluated.

I once had the  following two comments on the same course: "It's a disgrace that Mills is allowed to teach in a UK university" and  "Best lecturer I've ever listened to". What can I say? I did my best and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

I also had the interesting experience of routinely getting poor to average ratings when I mostly taught compulsory quantitative courses to predominantly innumerate students  and then  good to really very good ratings when I switched to teaching optional non-quantitative courses to predominantly numerate students. Did I just get better? Or does it just tell you that whoever draws the short straw to teach compulsory quants is going to get hammered if the audience would on average prefer to have their toenails extracted with pliers rather than listen to someone tell them about sampling distributions.

What is thoroughly disreputable is when student evaluations become a tool of managerial  terror. When I arrived at my current institution course evaluations were openly discussed in a staff meeting. One of the first things I did as an acting HOD was to abolish this practice. There are only two people that need to know the information contained in course evaluations: the person teaching the course - if there is useful information in the evaluations they are the person who is best placed to extract it - and the Head of Department - because the buck stops with them and if they are to be responsible they need to have information (and the nous to know what to do with it).

I also had occasion to counsel several new members of staff who were very upset by the negative evaluations that students gave them in their first year of teaching.  In each case I said the following things to them: a) don't take it too seriously; b)  everyone has to learn how to lecture; c) you learn by actually doing it and making mistakes (I've made lots); d) learn whatever you can from the comments; e) you will get better as you get more experience - trust me; and most important of all - f) I believe in you.

In each case the person concerned went on to be a fine lecturer and a credit to the profession.

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