In the early 20th century, when relatively few individuals went to college, student course evaluations served as prudent pedagogy. In modern times, however, they have evolved in a fashion that is surely not sound pedagogy.
As student activism and tuition costs have substantially and continuously increased, students and parents have demanded more of a say in “the product” they are purchasing. Today, there are entire websites dedicated to rating professors, independent of the extensive and official institutional surveys. A new digital age of student course evaluation is now prevalent, and it is having a severely negative overall impact on actual teaching quality. Correspondingly, “the product” has noticeably diminished.
The primary problem is that student evaluations are the lazy-person’s measure for teaching quality during the faculty tenure, promotion and retention process. Assistant professors seeking tenure are pressured to please the customers or be jettisoned. Part-time faculty and non-tenure-track lecturers are the new breed that handle the heavy and undesirable course loads, and their feet are especially held to this same fire.
Unfortunately, there is no tenure or promotion light at the end of the tunnel for them. They just need to perpetually focus on their own retention, primarily based on student evaluations and not flunking too many students. Student course evaluations are also selectively abused as a political tool to harass even tenured faculty. Professional peer-reviewed teaching evaluations and faculty mentoring are still a part of the process, but it’s a lot easier for the number-crunchers to use the indirect measure of student opinions as their primary decision-making tool.
When a vulnerable faculty member trends down a semester on student reviews, they can readily be flogged by the administrators, who are generally more interested in enrollment and money intake than the actual quality of the programs. Ironically, the students themselves suffer the most from the current use of student course evaluations.