It’s the end of the semester for many students, and that means it’s time for finals, preparation for summer and, unfortunately, end-of-term evaluations.
These feedback forms that ask students to fill out formulaic questions to critique classes and teachers are a ubiquitous part of the college experience — but should they be?
Lack of Anonymity
One central tenet of the end-of-term evaluations is that it must remain anonymous. Feedback on a class should be associated with the class itself and the teacher but not the student writing the evaluation. This is designed to prevent repercussions and to allow students to feel safe while offering true and honest feedback.
But anonymity cannot always be guaranteed. In small enough classes it might be easy for professors to identify students by handwriting or even writing style. Other types of questions also offer opportunities to identify the authors of supposedly anonymous data. I was in a class with two people and I was the only one taking the class for credit. When asked what grade I thought I had earned in the class, a common question on student evaluations, I was the only one who would be answering with a letter grade.
Theoretically, anonymity shouldn’t have to be necessary. Criticism should be levied in constructive ways, which professors can use to evaluate and restructure courses. And in the event that an end-of-term’s critique is too harsh, professors should know that retaliating with different treatment or different grades is inappropriate. But of course this doesn’t always happen — students can be cruel, but teacher response can be just as cruel. This is the real world, and therefore this anonymity is crucial yet cannot be promised.
Many universities don’t release the results of evaluations to professors until after grades have been submitted for the semester in order to reduce any chance of repercussions. This method, however, doesn’t prevent the possibility of retaliation. Many students will take multiple classes with the same professor, meaning that regardless of the timeline for release, evaluations might still impact their relationship with their professor.
Fall semester of last year I was asked to provide feedback for a professor who I would also be having the following semester. Given the small size of the class I was already worried about anonymity, but knowing that I would have biweekly classes with the professor I was reviewing gave me even further pause. I didn’t want my end-of-term evaluation to impact my grade that semester but also, and more importantly, my ability to continue working with that professor.
But the problems with the timeline for student evaluations go even deeper. Obviously evaluation of a class can only occur after students have had the opportunity to experience the class, which means they come at the end of the term. But the end of the year is also a difficult time for students, filled with final exams, final papers and no end of stress. Asking for students’ opinions on a class when they’re stressed out about that very class will certainly impact the feedback that they give.
This might be helpful — I know that I’m more forthcoming and honest with my feedback when I’m stressed and feel like I don’t have the time or energy to filter my responses. But more often than not it means that students are predisposed to providing negative feedback.
While other aspects of the course might have been good or interesting, what is first and foremost in students’ memory is workload and stress that they are currently experiencing. Not only do student evaluations place added burdens on students during an already stressful time of the semester, but that very fact means that the feedback they provides is less likely to be indicative of the course or helpful to the professor.
Asking for student end-of-term evaluations when students are most stressed not only means the feedback provided may be biased, but it might also reduce the feedback given altogether. There is often an option to opt out of filling in evaluation forms, an option that I know I personally take if I’m busy and cannot afford the time commitment necessary to provide good and accurate feedback.
Holding Grades Hostage
Asking for student evaluations at the end of the semester allows universities to require feedback before handing out grades, and therefore using grades as leverage. My university requires you to fill out end-of-term evaluations before receiving your final grades.
You can see that professors have submitted grades, but you cannot see the final value until you’ve submitted your evaluation. This sort of hostage situation often means that I will leave evaluation questions blank in order to get through the process quickly or opt out of the evaluation entirely in order to see my final grades.
This sort of hostage exchange creates an oddly hostile environment in which to end a class. It certainly doesn’t foster a space for constructive critique that has been thoroughly thought through — if anything, it creates a situation where students rush through evaluations if they complete them at all. This therefore defeats the entire purpose of requiring end-of-term evaluations before displaying grades.
Bad for Teachers
Not only are student evaluations a burden on students, but they’re pretty bad for professors as well. Student evaluations tend to be biased in favor of male teachers. Studies have shown that students receiving the same teaching experience will rate teachers they believe to be male higher than teachers they believe to be female. Male teachers get feedback on their competence in the course subject matter, while female teachers get feedback on their looks.
Even white, male, tenured professors have troubled relationships with these evaluations. I have explicitly been told by some of those types of teachers to only fill out an end-of-term evaluation if my review is positive, as this helps build their teaching portfolio. But the message that any review should be a good one and the absence of a review should be seen as bad is dangerous. There are many reasons why students won’t fill out evaluations, many of which I’ve outlined above. And many times the evaluations that are submitted are biased.
Student evaluations are clearly a problem. Anonymity cannot be guaranteed, which may put students at risk of retribution. The timeline means that they must be filled out at the worst point of the semester, which means that the feedback may be inaccurate or not even provided. Withholding grades until they’re filled out puts students and teachers into a strange feedback standoff that is not conducive to constructive criticism. And on top of all this, it’s not good for your professors, either.
So keep all of this in mind as you enter into end-of-term evaluations season, or the next time you’re asked to evaluate your professors. This outdated exercise is good for no one and you don’t owe anyone a completed evaluation.