If you’re even remotely considering going into academia, you will need to gain as much teaching experience as you can. Part of teaching is the dreaded course evaluations. Whether you are teaching a solo class or are simply a teaching assistant, should you care about course evaluations?
The short answer is yes. Why? Because teaching evaluations are proof that you might be a somewhat competent instructor. I say “might be” because you could be a bad instructor and still get good evaluations, and you could be an amazing instructor and get bad evaluations. Teaching evaluations, therefore, indicate that you might be a somewhat competent instructor. This possibility is important for people on job search committees. They want to be sure that if they are going to bring you on campus for an interview that, at the very minimum, you might be a competent instructor. If you have no teaching evals whatsoever, they will be even less confident that you might be competent in teaching.
In addition, you also need to leave the job search committee with a positive impression of your teaching portfolio. Although academics know not to put too much stock into course evaluations, they will still judge your job application packet based upon rules of thumb. If they see glowing course evaluations, they will be more likely to have a positive impression of you. Therefore, as a graduate student, you need to establish positive relationships with your students. Obviously you don’t want to approach your students with a hidden agenda, but keep in mind that several angry tirades on your course evaluations could hurt you when you’re on the job market.
If you are the sole instructor of record, you will be required to obtain confidential course evaluations. If you are simply the teaching assistant, you might consider collecting your own anonymous data. Perhaps you gave a guest lecture. So after your lecture, hand students a brief survey of similar items that would be on a course evaluation form. You could also email them a quick survey, too. Be sure to collect as many of these opportunities as you can. This will ensure that you have a legitimate teaching portfolio, rather than filler items on your CV.
Even though course evaluations are important, they are not valid stand-alone measures of teaching ability. Even though universities know this, at many teaching institutions course evaluations are the deciding factor in tenure. So like ‘em or hate ‘em, course evaluations are here to stay.