There are over 10,000 students at Chattanooga State, and over 600 professors. With numbers like that, it’s hard to imagine that every student will have an ideal experience with every teacher on campus, and vice versa. A teaching style that works well for one student may be challenging for another. Because of this you often hear students providing valuable feedback to each other about their experiences with professors. As it turns out, this feedback is not just valuable to other students. Teacher evaluations are one of the most effective tools that a teacher’s peers, department heads, and deans can access when reviewing the performance of both part-time and full-time instructors. Surprisingly, student evaluations are most appreciated by the teachers themselves.
Chattanooga State is not a research facility, which focusses on cutting edge research in a professor’s field of study, and where graduate students not only assist in that research, but also teach a number of undergraduate classes. As a teaching college, ChSCC’s primary mission is teaching students. Every year, all of the approximately 230 full-time and 400 part-time instructors have their performance reviewed by their superiors. An instructor’s position and career path determines the depth and extent of the review. For example, part- time faculty, who teach four classes or less per semester, may only be reviewed based on the online teacher evaluations that students complete at the end of each semester. Review of full-time faculty can also include class observations and comments on a professor’s personal teaching goals. A tenure track professor’s review is quite extensive, including class observations by tenured peers and supervisors and an in-depth review of their portfolio, which includes student comments from teacher evaluations. “Every comment that every student makes is recorded”, says Eva Lewis, the Vice President of Institutional Effectiveness, Research, and Marketing at Chattanooga State, the on-campus department that develops the evaluation forms. All of the student comments provided on the evaluations become part of the professor’s portfolio.
Teacher evaluations are valued by professors because they want to improve their teaching skills. A professor will often choose a teaching college over a research university because what they enjoy most about the profession is connecting with and encouraging students. “Teachers would like to see more feedback”, says Dr. Michael McCamish of the Criminal Justice Department, because “teachers want a more fulfilling experience for students”. Teachers will often use this feedback as a means to tweak and change their delivery in the classroom, especially if the comments they receive show a pattern and consistency across a number of students, as opposed to representing extreme opinions from only a few.
A quick review of the website RateMyProfessor.com shows evidence of these types of patterns. RateMyProfessor.com lists approximately 483 Chattanooga State professors, each with anywhere from 0 to almost 60 reviews over periods of a few to as many as 12 years. Students seem motivated to comment on a professor’s performance when they are highly effective and well- liked. Students value a teacher’s communication skills, ability to make challenging material accessible, ability to motivate, and personality. Students appreciate when teachers provide assistance outside of the classroom and are responsive to emails. Professors who possess or develop these skills receive positive reviews by a wide variety of students over a number of years.
Students provide negative feedback when they feel an instructor’s teaching style inhibits their ability to learn, by going off-topic or being difficult to understand in the classroom, not responding to emails, providing confusing or conflicting instructions, inconsistent grades, or no grades at all. When a teacher receives negative feedback on the evaluation forms administered by ChSCC, their superiors will discuss it with them during their annual review. “The focus is to try to help the professor to improve,” says Dean John Haworth of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department, as student reviews are not usually the basis for a punitive response. Rather than using the review process as a means of promoting or firing teachers, administrators use them to gain valuable information about what is happening in the classroom, and to develop methods that encourage teacher growth in weak areas. Because student reviews are such an important part of the teacher evaluation process, a significant amount of effort has gone into creating an evaluation form that is both user-friendly yet provides relevant feedback. The current teacher evaluation form has been in use for three years, and was developed after meeting with faculty groups. The current evaluation form has more opportunity for students to generate their own comments than the previous version, which included more multiple choice ratings. “The faculty get more out of the comments than anything else”, says Ms. Lewis. The individual evaluation forms are used to generate an aggregate report and which is then distributed electronically to faculty, deans and department heads, and the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
Teacher evaluations are usually provided to students at the end of the semester, but before a student has received final grades. Evaluations are completed online and are voluntary; however, many teachers develop creative methods to encourage students to fill them out. Some teachers offer extra credit to individual students for completing a review, while others offer credit to the entire class for full participation. Sophomore Jacob Bianculli recalls that some teachers will present the evaluation form with an implied expectation that it be completed, without expressly stating that it is required. Mr. Bianculli did not tend to give more positive feedback to teachers who offered extra credit; however, his evaluation could be negatively affected by the suggestion that the form was mandatory. Like many other students, myself included, Mr. Bianculli did not know who, if anyone, received or reviewed the teacher evaluation forms once completed. It is encouraging to discover that student- generated teacher evaluations are not only read by the teacher and his or her superiors, but are treated as an important part of a teacher’s development, and used to improve the overall learning experience at Chattanooga State.