Saturday, February 22, 2020

Illusions of learning - the problem with student evaluations

One of the problems with asking students to evaluate their courses and teachers is that the surveys often focus on a false customer-supplier relationship. In the commercial sphere companies want to find out if their customers are happy with what they have bought and this indicates a successful transaction. But education is far more complex and is not simply a matter of giving the customers what they want. In many cases the effects of education are delayed and cannot be assessed at the end of a course in terms of customer satisfaction. If you think back to your own education you may admit that the best teacher you had was one you hated at the time. A teacher who demanded a lot, criticised you, pushed you and challenged you. After the course you would have handed in a scathing evaluation but now, years later, you realise that you learned so much more from that experience than from the friendly teachers who made life easy and gave you a good grade.

We ask students to evaluate our pedagogy without helping them understand the process and this results in rather superficial evaluations that say very little about how much they actually learned from the course. This is the topic of a fascinating article in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and CognitionOn Students’ (Mis)judgments of Learning and Teaching Effectiveness. Sadly this article is only available if your employer pays a subscription for access to the journal but I will try to convey the gist of it here.

The authors discuss at length what they call illusions of learning. In their studies they discovered that students tend to give positive reviews to teachers who are enthusiastic and provide easily digested material that helps them pass the tests; an understandably pragmatic approach. They base their evaluations on superficial elements such as the teachers' appearance, age, gender, accent, enthusiasm, presentation style, and use of digital tools, none of which have any real relevance for the student's learning. Furthermore, the students showed a clear preference for traditional teaching methods like lecturing and believe that the learn more from traditional teaching than from active and collaborative learning, even when test results suggest the opposite.
Students believe, for example, that they learn best from enthusiastic and engaging instructors who provide smooth and well-polished lectures that do not require active class participation. Such factors, although they readily inflate students’ judgments of their own learning, do not consistently enhance students’ actual learning. They also inflate students’ evaluations of the effectiveness of their instructors. Indeed, students’ evaluations of teaching effectiveness can be poor predictors of their actual learning in their courses, and these evaluations can be biased by external factors unrelated to student learning, such as an instructor's gender, age, attractiveness, and grading leniency.
One section of the article has the heading: Do Student Evaluations Incentivize Poor Teaching Practices? If the university gives too much weight to student evaluations then more challenging teaching methods will be discouraged in favour of strategies that enhance customer satisfaction. Teachers who push and challenge students and encourage them to investigate topics for themselves risk poor evaluations and possible reprimand. To get better evaluations, teachers will be encouraged to revert to traditional methods and we are then stuck in a vicious circle. The students will have the illusion of learning and the teachers will have the illusion of teaching. Everyone will be happy but how much have they learned?
We propose that faulty metacognition is a key contributor to the problem. Students’ misevaluations of teaching effectiveness can be driven by the same factors that underlie their misjudgments of their own learning. Although they do not enhance student learning and can even impair it, teaching approaches that minimize effort and create the appearance of a smooth, well-polished, fluent, and enthusiastic instructor readily boost students’ subjective impressions of what they have learned and their perceived effectiveness of that instructor. Because these subjective impressions are the primary basis for determining teaching effectiveness, and as such are a key metric used for decisions about hiring and promotion, instructors are currently incentivized to adopt teaching approaches that may produce illusions of learning that boost their ratings but can actually undermine students’ learning.
Sadly there is no easy solution to this problem except widening the scope of evaluations to include multiple perspectives and helping students to make more informed evaluations of their learning. Given the workload for many students this will not be easy and the authors see no clear solution at present. At least we now have evidence that the system requires a radical rethink and that awareness is an improvement.
It is hoped that future conceptualizations of teaching effectiveness include research-based evidence for improving student learning and metacognition as a strong basis in formulating measurements that accurately and reliably reflect the quality of teaching.
Carpenter, S. K., et al. On Students’ (Mis)judgments of Learning and Teaching Effectiveness. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2020),

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