Letter to the Editor: Student course evaluations do matter

By Ryan Pumroy

On Thursday, the Northern Star published the column “NIU lacks transparency with course evaluations.” I agree that evaluations are important and students should take them seriously. Let me try to explain how evaluations are used, what they actually evaluate and their limitations.

First, how they are used. Instructors do read what you write on your evaluation forms; so do others in their respective academic departments. The Scantrons you mark go to Testing Services, and we end up with a full range of data and averages. Different departments do different things, but those averages usually are one element, among many, included in overall performance reviews.

Second, what they actually evaluate. Evaluations don’t measure student learning. Rather, they measure student satisfaction and perceptions of a course and an instructor. This is why you are asked subjective questions like, “Did the instructor demonstrate expertise in the subject matter? Did the instructor provide clear feedback?”

These questions don’t measure how well you did in class or what you actually learned. They measure your feelings about the class and instructor.

Lastly, the limitations. Anya Kamenetz’s National Public Radio articles “Student Course Evaluations Get An ‘F’” and “Why Female Professors Get Lower Ratings” highlight these issues well. The former refers to a study which finds instructors who are “tough,” meaning they push students to do well and get better grades in future classes, often receive lower evaluation scores. In the latter article, it details how women are often subject to lower evaluation scores despite doing equal work.