Student evaluations

I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.

First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.

The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.

Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.

On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.

The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…

However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.

The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).

The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.

The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.

The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.

The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.


Filed under academia, cheating, education, freedom of speech, law, legal education, powerpoint, sexuality, society, tolerance, universities, USA

4 responses to “Student evaluations

  1. Pingback: Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily

  2. Greg Yates

    Its a complex issue of just who is allocated access to student evaluations. You teach a topic to 100 people, and perhaps 50 do an evaluation sheet. At UNISA, it is done on computer, so about 1 in 4 student actually bothers. As the teacher you can read these, but so can many of your many administration staff, some of whom are not academics. Many questions are often ‘dumb’, such as “Did the lecturer use up to date teaching methods” , but others are tolerable, e.g. “The lecturer explained content well”. Then arbitrary rules get applied, ratings tallied, and spat out as though they represent some reality.
    Hey, I am a psychometrician by trade, so I find all this number crunching is highly contentious. There is just no point generating numbers that possess no validity.
    Now the next step is the use of such silly numbers as indices for promotion, salary increase, professorial status, etc. But the student evaluations are such poor indicators of teaching quality. There is an effect within behavioural science known as the Feynman effect, ie the fact that students rate lecturers strongly on the entertainment factor. ” I did enjoy those lectures, therefore I must have learnt a good deal”. There is also the Dr Foxx effect, referring to the fact that people naturally rate bullshit artists very highly, on account of the jargon they exhibit, those buzz words, even when content is non-existent. (what we call the ‘content free lecture’).
    So, we can read student evaluations, but then must realise that there are many things that drive ratings up and down unrelated to how it was taught. And worse, by delivering excellent material, you may be loosing steady ground on that entertainment factor. But by deliberately dumbing down lecture content, making assignments facile, and increasing your entertainment value, then you can reap at least some of those available rewards.

  3. LDU

    I like student evaluations, it’s an opportunity of letting the faculty know how effective the teaching methods of its lecturers are.

    Some lecturers aren’t open to other ideas whilst others are just intimidating. I’ve had bad lecturers and they just put you off from studying a unit altogether.

    We had a lecturer for one unit who wasn’t open to other opinions and kept pushing his own down our throats.

    Another lecturer kept asking people questions during tutes even though they had informed him that they hadn’t completed the readings.

    When lecturers get negative feedback the school replaces them or shifts them to some other role, which is good for future students.

  4. Greg, at my university we have two forms of questionnaire. One is a multiple choice one which gets fed into a computer. Some of the questions on that are so broad as to be meaningless, or inapplicable to the particular subject in question. Some of the questions are just ‘dumb’.

    The other feedback sheet is a typed one with questions more appropriate to my particular faculty and discipline. This is the one which I think is important, although again, sometimes there’s not much I can do about a complaint (eg, complaints about the syllabus, readings or texts – I’m not a big enough fish to have much say in those things – so I can’t do much about it – although I do pass the feedback onto the coordinator).

    LDU, I think it is important for lecturers to know how they can improve their teaching. I really didn’t like it when a lecturer was dogmatic or unapproachable myself. And I really like getting positive feedback, so then I can see students appreciate the effort I put into my classes.

    One has to be a pragmatist about set readings – I think very few students do all the readings – I was one of the rare ones who tried to do so. (My sister is horrified by this – she said “You and the mature age students!”). Still, sometimes I do take some comments with a grain of salt, like “Less hard work please” – why study at a top law school if you’re not prepared to get something out of it?

    Why do some universities still have terrible lecturers? The problem is that teaching is only half of what universities are about – so some lecturers are appalling teachers, but great researchers who get in lots of money in grants for the university. And research is what makes the academic wheels go ’round. Personally I find that my teaching improves my publications and vice versa, but obviously for some it isn’t like that.

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