I've read and thought a lot about the role of student evaluations in the evaluation of professors. Part of that is because, well, I was a college student for 11 years and I've been a professor for 14 years (full disclosure: I'm a tenured, full professor of business at the University of Cincinnati).
More than that, however, is the kind of research I've done, which has examined the operational drivers of service quality. My dissertation examined how various attributes of both the technology and the customer service representative influence customers' perceptions of online customer service experiences.
I've also co-authored one of the seminal (ahem) papers on what defines services ("Unified Services Theory" (2006) available here: http://craigfroehle.com/posted/S&F_UST_2006.pdf
) and, perhaps more crucially here, what defines a customer.
In some ways, students can indeed be customers some of the time; they may meet all the criteria in that paper. They provide inputs into the service production process and they (sometimes) determine whether or not the service provider (the university) gets paid for providing the service. However, there's a big "but" when it comes to many students:They are not the only customers that must be satisfied by the educational process.
Other customers, either direct or indirect, include employers (who must be satisfied with what the students know when they hire them) and the students' parents (when the parents helped foot the tuition bill). In the case of public universities that receive state or local funds to support educational activities, or when a student receives federal student aid (e.g., Pell grants), then the public
is also a customer of that student's education. All of these customers have to be satisfied, not just the student.
How does this relate to the issue of the importance of student evaluations? In several ways...
First, students tend to not know what they should know. That is inherent in being a student. Their ability to judge a professor or a course on its usefulness and relevance during the last week of the course is completely inadequate. A student may take months or years to comprehend the utility of the knowledge gained in any particular university course. Moreover, any one course is often not a complete treatise on a topic; the knowledge gained therein has to be synthesized across that gained in other courses to provide the complete benefit.
Think of it as a series of foot-long pieces of rope. Individually, they can be useful, but not terribly so. But, tied together to form a net, they can provide much greater support and a foundation for larger undertakings.
Second, going back to the Unified Services Theory paper, one of the students' key inputs is effort. Most learning requires effort. Some learning can happen passively, but that can't be solely relied upon in most college courses (not if one hopes to attain a reasonable degree of mastery). Students themselves tend to be poor judges of the amount of effort they put into a course. Despite that, they often evaluate a course relative to the effort they think they put into it. The more effort, the higher the grade they expect. If there is a disconnect between the effort they perceive they put in and the grade they ultimately expect to earn, that dissonance produces dissatisfaction.
Finally, as the NPR story describes, there are studies indicating that students' assessments of professors bear little resemblance to the amount of learning that actually happens. Students "liking" a professor can actually lead to less
learning, all other things held constant, as the Pellizzari study showed. This suggests that students' evaluations of professors is actually at odds with the outcomes that all
the customers of the educational service want, which is for the student to become more educated.
All told, this Iowa bill is an abominably bad idea. I expect it to fail, but the very fact that the idea made it this far suggests a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of Iowa legislators about how education happens.