Merritt on Teaching Evaluations

I’ve previously blogged on problems with student evaluations of teaching. First, I’ve expressed concern about the anonymous nature of the feedback, which means that the evaluators have reduced accountability for what they say. Second, there’s evidence that superficial things like the professor’s attractiveness affects the evaluations.

Deborah Merritt of Ohio State University College of Law provides much-needed structure to these critiques in her excellent article, Bias, the Brain, and Student Evaluations of Teaching, which reviews the extensive social science on teaching evaluations and how people judge other people to explain the significant deficiencies with the typical written evaluation of teaching. In a nutshell, she explains why written evaluations fail to accurately measure the quality of the professor’s instruction, making them susceptible to bias and other unwanted forces. Her solution is to elicit student feedback in a guided discussion, a much more time-consuming method of collecting feedback but one that avoids the defects of the written evaluation.

The abstract:

Student evaluations of teaching are a common fixture at American law schools, but they harbor surprising biases. Extensive psychology research demonstrates that these assessments respond overwhelmingly to a professor’s appearance and nonverbal behavior; ratings based on just thirty seconds of silent videotape correlate strongly with end-of-semester evaluations. The nonverbal behaviors that influence teaching evaluations are rooted in physiology, culture, and habit, allowing characteristics like race and gender to affect evaluations. The current process of gathering evaluations, moreover, allows social stereotypes to filter students’ perceptions, increasing risks of bias. These distortions are inevitable products of the intuitive, “system one” cognitive processes that the present process taps. The cure for these biases requires schools to design new student evaluation systems, such as ones based on facilitated group discussion, that enable more reflective, deliberative judgments. This article draws upon research in cognitive decision making, both to present the compelling case for reforming the current system of evaluating classroom performance and to illuminate the cognitive processes that underlie many facets of the legal system.