Preventing the Overinterpretation of Small Mean Differences in Student Evaluations of Teaching: An Evaluation of Warning Effectiveness

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Abstract

Student evaluations of teaching play an important role in higher education, but they can be compromised by overinterpretation of small, nonsignificant differences in means. Three studies explored the effectiveness of warnings in the prevention of overinterpretation. Study 1 (N = 166) provided evidence that specific wordings and immediate attention checks are associated with increased comprehension of warnings. In Study 2 (N = 130) warnings completely eliminated the influence of small mean differences when faculty compared descriptions of 2 teachers. Finally, Study 3 (N = 106) provided evidence that warnings can influence, but not completely eliminate, department heads’ tendency to interpret small differences within a single teacher’s student evaluation means. These studies indicate that overinterpretation of student evaluations is a robust effect that seems to be partially mitigated by warnings that are clear and that capture attention.

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