What good are student evaluations for lecturers?
Dealing with impossible demands
European law has a reputation as the most difficult course at the RUG. But lecturer Matthijs van Wolferen says that is mostly based on rumours. ‘Students tend to think we’re only going to ask them weird and specific details on the exam; that there has to be a catch. And ten years ago, only about eight percent of students passed their resit’, he says. ‘People still think it’s an impossible course.’
To change low passing rates, Van Wolferen and his colleague Justin Lindeboom transformed how the course was taught.
The content didn’t change; ‘we still had to provide an overview of European law, of course. But everything else did: they changed the order in which the course was taught, re-wrote questions, and made the material generally easier to understand. They also decided to pay more attention to students’ confidence. ‘Students think the course is really difficult, but it’s really not; everyone should be able to pass it as long as they spend the required hours on it’, says Van Wolferen.
To gauge student confidence, Van Wolferen sent this year’s European law students a Google document asking for feedback. But reading their responses, he was at a loss. It wasn’t clear he could meet student demands and still meet the objectives set by the course.
It’s not that students were unhappy; in fact, they were more positive about the course than ever before. But they simply felt the course was too big. ‘They also wanted me to tell them, explicitly, how to solve certain problems. And they wanted step-by-step plans.’
No wonder they’re having a hard time
He wants to take the feedback seriously. ‘But when we asked how much time they spend on the course, not one of them even got close to the 22 hours of self-study the course requires. No wonder they’re having a hard time.’
What about the step-by-step plans? ‘Lecturers can’t help but wonder if today’s students are lazier than they used to be’, says Van Wolferen. ‘We used to complain about how they all drank too much and spent more time doing boardwork than studying. These days we whine that they’re all on Instagram and Snapchat and want video classes so they don’t actually have to get out of bed. I say that times change and we should be changing with them.’
Nevertheless, students still seem to want to follow the path of the least resistance: they want summaries, easily memorised facts, and courses they can pass in one go. ‘It feels like a problem that lecturers should be working on, but all these social developments seem to be getting in the way. I do understand why students want something like video classes to help them: it’s no longer about understanding the material but about learning stuff by heart and reproducing it.’
Van Wolferen’s main problem lies in the fact that he’s responsible for turning his students into proper lawyers. Summaries and rote learning won’t do that.
Other courses are facing the same problems with student feedback, which can be contradictory. ‘Some want interim exams so they have to learn smaller bits of information. Others don’t like things to be so spread out and want just one big exam at the end of the block’, associate professor of statistics Don van Ravenzwaaij says.
What are lecturers to do? Should they change their courses so more students pass the exam, resulting in nothing but positive feedback? Or should they ignore the evaluations because students don’t always know what’s good for them?
‘I’m a human being; I feel for the students who are having a hard time. It’s tough to see someone work really hard and fail the exam’, says Van Ravenzwaaij. ‘But making the exams easier isn’t fair on the students from previous years. There has to be a certain continuity. Making a course easier to pass because you had a bad year just isn’t an option.’
Casper Albers, assistant professor of applied statistics, is familiar with the problem. More than once, his students have written that they wished the course was ‘less work’. ‘But I can’t just change the amount of material I teach during a course. Upon talking to the students who filled out the evaluation I usually find out they simply didn’t spend the 140 hours on the course the study guide said it should take.’
I can’t just change the amount of material I teach
Lecturers are supposed to teach their students something, to challenge them. But they feel it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do that. ‘Sometimes’, Van Wolferen says, ‘I don’t even know what my role as a teacher is. I’m supposed to keep my course going, motivate students, and teach them about European law. At the same time, I can only hope that the students are intrinsically motivated.’
It’s too easy to say that today’s students are just lazy. ‘Is that fair? Maybe it’s exactly why we’re even having this problem. Or maybe it’s that we ‘as a society’, or the government, just expect too many things from students’, Van Wolferen wonders. ‘Studying used to mean gaining knowledge, learning critical thinking. But an increasing number of students just want to graduate as quickly as possible. It’s no longer their goal to learn.’
Student Bram Omvlee, who represents DAG in the university council, has also seen values in education change. ‘Especially now with the loans system there is a lot of pressure on students, so we tend to evaluate courses as taking “too much time”. We just want to get the points. But that shouldn’t be the focus of our time here.’
Is it time to stop with the evaluations? Lecturer of the Year Marc Kramer doesn’t think so. ‘It’s only fair to ask the people who are actually being educated for their opinions. Their remarks, whether positive or negative, can be useful. But we have to keep in mind that educational quality doesn’t depend on the students’ opinions alone.’
‘Students shouldn’t be in charge of what they do or don’t learn, says Gijs Verhoeff with SOG, ‘but it’s important that lecturers stay open to what the student community is saying.’
Van Wolferen says some of the comments actually are useful. ‘There are times when I think students already know about a certain topic, only for the evaluations to tell me they don’t. So then I go over that in my next seminar.’
Students shouldn’t be in charge
What would really help though, he says, is to actually have conversations from the students. ‘Remarks such as “I didn’t like the course” are no use to me. I want to ask students if they understand what I’m trying to teach them and whether they’re with me.’
That dialogue is important. ‘If lecturers don’t talk to students and just do whatever they want, we’re just navel-gazing. And we do too much of that as it is.’