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In my opinion

Course evaluations – students’ revenge?


It’s that time of year again when students prepare to fill out their course evaluations. No matter how confident I’ve become with my teaching, the drill remains a source of consternation.

Like death and taxes, the evaluation exercise is something instructors cannot avoid, certainly not at any university whose administrators believe in accountability. We’ve all heard of courses in which the class average was too high or too low: perhaps this professor has finally cracked up; perhaps that TA has been too terrified to assign his undergraduates low marks. Whatever the case, students’ evaluations function as part of the system of checks and balances, reminding us that we’re accountable for our pedagogical decisions to them and administrators.

The pencils are making their way through the rows. I wonder how angry those students are who received low grades on their first-term tests. Will they remember the patient review we had before the test or appreciate my hard work on their essays? Sure they will. They like me.

I keep reminding myself that, despite occasional hurtful remarks I’ve received on evaluations, the vast majority of comments have been positive. But why do we forget the positive and agonize over the few negative remarks? Shoot, maybe I shouldn’t have made that snide crack about religion last month; students don’t always take kindly to that sort of thing (“When you attack my religion, you attack me!”). Well, that was only one, and years ago.

So why am I worried, as I send the green questionnaires down the first row of seats? Could it have something to do with asking for intelligent feedback from 17-year-olds? How many professors wonder, “Who are they to judge a person like me, who has three university degrees, an international reputation, and several books?” The evaluation exercise isn’t only about keeping those wild and wacky university teachers in line. It’s a tremendous compliment to ask students for their opinions about teaching styles, the reading load, the pace of a course, the weighting of assignments.

But how useful are evaluations to instructors who have been teaching for decades and who learned long ago what does and doesn’t work? For years now, students have provided no new insights or useful suggestions about my course curricula or pedagogical methods. Perhaps the evaluations are more for the students than for us; recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Why shouldn’t they enjoy the right and the privilege of having a say in the quality of their education?

Pitfalls, though, pitfalls. Even choosing the right questions is difficult. Instead of “What did you like least about the lectures?” shouldn’t we be asking, “Is there something you liked least about the lectures?” When we manipulate students into providing negative responses, we encourage them to cast about for some negative remark, any negative remark, when they might otherwise have been disinclined. Our questions cannot be questions begged.

Many students don’t need any encouragement to bash their teachers. The exercise is meant in part to ensure that instructors are held accountable, yet students engage in libel with impunity. The student who referred to a colleague as a “cow” was not held accountable. The students whose remarks were so hurtful that another friend hasn’t returned to classroom teaching in years, they were not held accountable. We tell ourselves that the slanderous remarks are a necessary evil in anonymous evaluations; otherwise, students wouldn’t give us truly objective observations.

Still, we instructors are fully accountable for every critical remark we make on our students’ assignments. They know exactly who made the criticisms and we’re prepared to be held accountable for them. No anonymity here.

But surely my current undergraduates are mature enough to handle the exercise responsibly. Surely their responses will be informed by something other than the grades they think they’ll be getting, or some imagined slight that happened in October. As I distribute the pink evaluation forms to front-row students, they’ll remember how hard I worked at helping them improve their critical skills. True, a couple complained about the grades on their first-term papers: “I never got a grade that low in my life!” They’ll forgive me.

I sympathize, however, with a colleague who complained about how undergraduates comprise a “culture of entitlement”: many believe they deserve lofty grades because their tuition payments have in a sense “purchased” the highest grades we can give them. And if we didn’t award them the top marks they’ve come to expect, having graduated from a provincial education system in which teachers fear failing their pupils and routinely inflate grades to get them into postsecondary institutions, then, by gammit, we’re going to hear about it on the evaluations!

No, my current first-year undergraduates were quite sweet. They laughed at my jokes. They must have appreciated our explorations of popular and classical genres, the varieties of poetry, the comedy, tragedy, and history plays, and how I never asked them to read Shakespeare or Henry James’s swamp-like prose. We had fun. They know good teaching when they see it. Yeah, they like me. They really, really, like me.

They’re all armed, at last, with their pencils, and the green and pink evaluation forms. “Any last questions before I leave? Yes, Damien?”

“Sir, is son of a bitch hyphenated?”

Dr. Zimmerman teaches English at York University.

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  1. Obnoxious Student / September 18, 2013 at 02:41

    Are you kidding? You’re worried about a low-key little comment on a paper form that will only be viewed by a couple of people?

    This is the twenty-first century. If you want to see modern student feedback about an institution and specific staff, go to and search on “Whitireia”

  2. Doug Mann / September 10, 2016 at 17:44

    Funny conclusion Brett. I can relate to pretty well everything you say here.

    The answer to your titular question is “yes, in SOME cases.” I just looked at my evaluations from last year, and on some questions the numerical results were all over the place – 5 students say I’m “Outstanding” at, say, communication, 1 says I’m “Fair”, 1 says I’m “Poor.” If this were science, these wildly different numbers would be evidence of very poor experimental technique.

    Is this a calm and objective assessment of teaching? I think not. As your article hopes isn’t true, when you get most students giving you strong ratings, then a few slag you off, there’s probably a good reason in their minds why they’re doing it – low grades, you having corrected them in class, you refusing to answer an email at 11:30 PM on a Sunday night, etc. Everything has a cause. And the cause is probably unrelated to whether your pedagogical method is valid or not.

    That’s why student evaluations don’t, and can’t, work – they’re done by self-interested parties who simply don’t know as much about what they’re learning as the people teaching them. It’s like a murder suspect having family members on the jury during a criminal trial. “He’s not guilty your honour!”

    And that’s ignoring the typical reasons for human prejudice found in social psychology textbooks: race, gender, sexuality, physical appearance, age, etc. Mix those in and you produce a toxic stew of subjectivity.

    What’s surprising to me is that university officials are, in some cases, convinced that student evaluations do measure teaching skills or, and this is even more shocking, student learning.

    This latter point is a sore one – in my experience, students do more work when they think it’s necessary to get good grades than in marginal cases where they think they can get an acceptable grade for last-minute essays or cramming on exams. So their drive to high marks and low workloads directly conflicts with our desire as teachers to have our students learn as much as possible (within reason).

    The natural tendency for teachers, especially those on contract, is to dumb down content, inflate grades, and be generous with extensions and rewrites. This is clearly the practise students are used to from their high school days. As comedian Gerry Dee says of marginal high school students, you pass them because you don’t want them in your class again next year. Universities don’t have the same problem. But if you fail someone based on their work alone (as opposed to a phantom student who never attends class) prepare to have your grade challenged.

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