Filling a niche: A personal view of student ratings


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Filling a niche: A personal view of student ratings

By Bobby Neal Winters

I will begin this piece by introducing myself because it is important for you to know who I am. I am a university professor and currently the president of my university’s bargaining association, which is a professorial, overly-precise way of saying that I am the head of the union.

A year ago when I assumed the presidency of the bargaining association, saying that it was important would have seemed pompous or silly. I mean this is just a title after all. I didn’t gain a single brain cell May 1, 2004 when I assumed the office. I didn’t even have to take a class. A ballot was sent out that only had one candidate’s name, mine, at the president’s spot, and I won, so I cannot claim that I won the position through charisma or ability.

I thought it would mainly be a title. I would just fill a spot for a year and that would be that. There was no reason for not believing this. Contract negotiations were going well and had a civil tone, and the state budget crisis was behind us. It looked like nothing but clear sailing ahead.

However, negotiations became protracted, going into June and July, and there was one point on which the Administration—in the view of the Association—was being stubborn. That was on the matter of student ratings.

Those who are not in education might not be aware of the issue of student ratings. Near the end of each semester most professors will administer student rating forms to their classes in order to determine how the student has perceived the class. The students fill in bubbles on a form to indicate how well they like various aspects of the teacher’s performance, in most cases rating items from 1 to 5 with 1 being intense feelings in one way and 5 being intense feelings in the other.

This can provide a teacher with valuable information about how he looks to his students, and as Robert Burns observed, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”

The Association well understood the value student rating forms could have for this sort of self-improvement, but we were quite reluctant to yield the Administration contractual power to demand they be included in tenure and promotion dossiers. While we understood the reactions and perceptions of the students could provide us valuable insights about how our students perceived what we were doing, the idea that eighteen-year-olds would be sitting in judgment of us by proxy in the form of student ratings was simply galling. We are PhDs for the most part, having years of teaching experience, and many among us believed the idea that students barely out of high school could provide any insight that should count toward tenure and promotion was absurd.

At the end of the summer, impasse was declared and the bulk of the Fall Semester was spent preparing for a fact finding hearing that would determine whether or not the Administration would force us to turn in our student rating forms.

I must confess that much of our reluctance to bend to the Administration’s desires had to do with distrust of authority. Once the administration had these forms what would they do with them? The possibilities scared us.

While we desired to have authority over our students without allowing their input into the tenure and promotion process, we did not trust those who held a similar sort of authority over us.

In December we had a fact finding hearing which the Association lost. During the period from the declaration of impasse until the Administration won the case, I was to take part in almost a dozen newspaper stories and a local television interview. My perception that the title president didn’t mean anything changed. By virtue of my office, I was put in the spotlight. Regardless of whether I believed I had earned my office before, I certainly believed I had after. I had come to fit a niche.

The whole experience has strengthened my belief that the human animal seeks some authority structure to plug itself into, especially in times of perceived crisis. Part of this has to do with the way people have changed in the way they react to me. Some people who didn’t listen to me before will now. Some who didn’t take me seriously before do now. I have come to fit a niche, at least for some.

You might say that because I am president I must have power, but you might be surprised to know how little power the office actually has. The association president can call meetings and talk to the press and that is about it. Even the negotiations are the responsibility of someone else. It is the ultimate in democracy, and, therefore, teeters on the brink of anarchy. Any authority the office has is based upon the human need for that authority.

My views on this were shaped by research I did on student ratings in preparation for fact finding. There is a huge literature on the subject. In hindsight, this should have been a clue as to how prevalent the use of student evaluations are and, consequently, how unlikely it was that we were to win our case.

Much of the Association’s case was based upon the notion that student rating forms weren’t valuable for the summative matters like tenure or promotion because they were biased by race, gender, and appearance. In some sense this view could have—not all together unfairly—been summed up as, “Any instrument that rates a handsome white man highly must be flawed.”

We in the Association were of the opinion, however, that what really matters is whether or not the student learns. I still believe this is of primary importance, but during my search of the literature I began to have some ideas that surprised me. While these instruments did not measure student learning, they measured a quality that might have an effect on student learning, and that is the teacher’s personality.

We teachers were once students ourselves, but we sometimes forget that. It is easy to forget simple things such as working harder for a teacher we like because we want to be liked in return. We want to please an authority, especially if that authority has a large degree of personal charisma.

In some sense, the teacher-student relationship is like the parent-child relationship. I believe this is one reason the reaction against the use of ratings was so violent on the part of some teachers. It was as if the Administration wanted to poke its nose into family matters.

I started teaching as a graduate student when I was 20 years old and am now 42. During that interval, I have experienced the transition from being a peer to my students to being someone who is old enough to be their father, and their reactions to me have changed. While I have lost out on being able to connect to them through common cultural references like a big brother would, I’ve been able to fit myself into a niche in their collective psyche similar to that reserved for a parent.

The research on student ratings confirms students react better to fixed, predictable demands, like those set out by a good parent. Furthermore, the gender bias could be due to differences in the way students perceive the father versus the mother. One could explain the racial bias because most of the students are white and, consequently, have white parents.

Of course, one should not look at a handsome, white male and give him tenure or promotion based simply upon that. I’ve known handsome, white males who have done a lousy job promoting student learning, which is what colleges and universities are to be about. I’ve also known others who have been able to find their own niches within the collective psyche of the student apart from that fatherly role. What I am saying is that humans are creatures with certain predispositions that affect how they learn and who they can easily learn from.

We as teachers can profit from student evaluations by using them as tools and listening to what they say to us. Part of our job is to learn enough of the human psyche in order to make use of it in the learning process. We should learn about our students, and in the process, learn about ourselves.

Because learning is what it’s all about.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, writers, and speaker. You may contact him at
Good piece - seems like quite a personal development process.
Yes, Brian, I can do things now that were hard for me before. I am much more assertive.