There is a wealth of psychology research that can help teachers to improve how they work with students, but academic studies of this kind aren’t always easy to access or translate into the realities of classroom practice. This series seeks to redress that by taking a selection of studies and making sense of the important information for teachers, as we all seek to answer the question: how can we help our students do better at school? This time, we consider student evaluation of learning.
How do schools measure how good a teacher is? Some use value-added metrics, comparing how much progress a student has made (often using test scores) versus how much progress the school would predict they should have made, some evaluate performance by observing lessons, and others ask students to rate their teachers. There are reports that some schools even use students like mystery shoppers to report back on teacher quality.
Simply put, if we like a topic a lot then we are more likely to rate the person teaching that topic as very good
But does the student evaluation of a teacher bear any relation to that teacher’s effectiveness? Are student ratings of teachers more of a popularity contest than anything else? To answer these questions, researchers from Mount Royal University in Canada reviewed existing studies in this area and published their findings in 2017 in the journal Studies in Educational Evaluation.
The main findings
Researchers found there was no correlation between how much students learned and how highly they rated the effectiveness of their teacher. The authors of the study stated that, “despite more than 75 years of sustained effort, there is presently no evidence supporting the widespread belief that students learn more from professors who receive higher student evaluation ratings”.
Furthermore, they suggested that previous studies that had found a positive link between the two probably used a very small sample (which can make studies less reliable) or suffered from publication bias (where researchers are more likely to publish positive findings than negative ones).
The authors also highlighted the difficulty of measuring how much someone has learned. “The entire notion that we could measure professors’ teaching effectiveness by simple ways such as asking students to answer a few questions about their perceptions of their course experiences, instructor knowledge, and the like seems unrealistic,” they said.
Other research has explored why students rate some teachers as more effective than others. Two main factors might be at play here. The first is students’ prior interest in the subject. Simply put, if we like a topic a lot then we are more likely to rate the person teaching it as very good. The opposite is also true: most students won’t like the person who makes them work hard at a subject they don’t like.
Related: Drowned in sound: how listening to music hinders learning
The second factor influencing student evaluation is confirmation bias. In previous studies, students received a brief biography of a supply teacher that was identical except for one detail. Half the students were told a teacher was “warm”, and half that they had a “cold” personality. At the end of the lesson, students who had been primed to think of their new teacher as warm were more likely to rate them as such, while the other group was more likely to rate them as distant and aloof. Prior knowledge of a teacher’s reputation can strongly influence how a new class feels about them, regardless of their teaching practice.
What this means for the classroom
The authors of this review concluded that universities and colleges may need to give minimal or no weight to student evaluation ratings. This is not to say that students’ opinions about teachers are not important, but that they shouldn’t be important criteria for measuring teachers’ effectiveness. If educational institutions want their students to rate teachers as effective, championing love and passion for a subject is perhaps one of the best ways of doing so.
• Bradley Busch is a registered psychologist, director at InnerDrive and author of Release Your Inner Drive. Follow @Inner_Drive on Twitter and get a visual summary of this research on his website