Making the Best of Course Evaluations

The problems with course evaluations are many, well documented, and probably insurmountable. Evaluations consistently demonstrate bias based on factors such as race and ethnicity and gender (for instance, when online instructors lied about their gender, they saw statistically significant favoring of instructors whom students thought were male). Even when carefully designed, they’re unreliable indicators of teaching quality and liable to be used inappropriately in decisions about rank and tenure. And if that weren’t enough, research has confirmed that students give courses significantly higher scores if the instructor brings cookies on course-evaluation day

The bad news is that course evaluations probably aren’t going anywhere. The slightly better news is that a vocational approach might help. One place to start is by actually teaching students to give useful feedback. Just as we have to teach students to write lab reports, literature reviews, and essays, we need to give them at least some sense of how to write in the genre “course evaluation.” That’s true especially since the default model for evaluating anything has become comments on the internet, ample trolling included. If we don’t teach students anything else, we shouldn’t expect anything better. 

When we teach students how to give useful feedback, we’re doing vocational work. First, we’re helping them develop a skill they can contribute to their communities in the future; after all, giving feedback well is essential in classroom and career, in friendship and family. Second, we’re demonstrating that we value their insights in the present, recognizing they have the ability—perhaps even the responsibility—to help us be better teachers and help the institution live out its vocation. Finally, by encouraging them to reflect on their education, we’re tapping into the value of metacognition, which enhances both learning and ownership of learning.

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Back to the Future II: Prioritizing “Becoming” Over “Being”

Is personality the key to vocation?

A number of years ago, I attended an advising presentation aimed at a group of students undecided with regard to their major. The presenter told the students a version of the following: You cannot change who you are because you are wired in certain ways, and discovering the ways you’re wired can help you choose the right major and set you on a successful career path. From there, the presenter made the students aware of the resources available to them at the institution, including career counselors and various personality and skill surveys. The presentation was well-intentioned, and some parts were even inspiring. Students who felt confused and anxious about their academic choices were encouraged by being told they had distinct skills and gifts that could provide direction, and that trained professionals were ready to help them in the discovery and planning processes.

Of course, we all want to encourage and guide students as they navigate vocational choices and opportunities. That is, after all, why NetVUE exists. But NetVUE challenges formulaic approaches and offers nuanced imagination for vocation as a journey more than a destination, as something formed rather than found, developed rather than discovered, discerned with mentors more than detected with surveys. These are important challenges and correctives.

Nevertheless, even in more nuanced presentations, there are times when one can detect some residual assumptions of the formulaic/discovery approaches. In other words, some of the language we use to describe and promote the organic processes of vocational discernment still draws on philosophical assumptions that inform and enframe formulaic approaches. That is not necessarily bad since assumptions and language can be employed in different ways. But I find it helpful to bring the issues to the surface and engage them directly. This post is my attempt to do that by briefly contrasting the philosophical outlooks of Plato and Aristotle and their implications for vocational discourse. Continue reading