Preliminary findings from a study financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, looking at what makes an effective teacher, make it clear that students are excellent judges of their instructors. The study findings, reported in the New York Times, used gains on standardized tests to measure teachers' effectiveness. But it was not the teachers who spent the most classroom time on test preparation whose students did best on the tests. The teachers whose students scored higher were those who maintained order in their classrooms, helped students learn from their errors, and who explained the course material in several different ways. And it was these same teachers who were higher ranked by their students.
As one teacher commented when we mentioned these findings, "It's no surprise. Students say they like classes where the teacher makes it easy, but what they really prefer is to learn how to think. Teaching can't be a popularity contest, but we need to give substantial weight to what students think about their teachers and the way they teach when we evaluate instruction."
This study focused on public school school students, but the idea of listening to students when evaluating their teachers has been around for a while on college campuses. Sites like "Ratemyprofessors.com" have long allowed college undergraduates to share their opinions about their professors, for better or for worse. Whether this is always a positive step and whether it should be used for students at all levels can be debated. But, as noted by the individual who developed the student questionnaires for the Gates Foundation study, "As a nation, we've wasted what students know about their own classroom experiences instead of using that knowledge to inform school reform efforts."