by • August 8, 2012 • Assessment & Student AffairsComments (2)2203

Should Student Evaluations Be Anonymous?

Thank you to Mark Greenfield for tweeting this article today about a recent lawsuit brought by a professor in Florida regarding an anonymous student complaint filed against them.

Thoughts? => Should Student Evaluations Be Anonymous?
Mark Greenfield

While I am not as well versed with much of the legal terminology and processes that would allow a more in depth discussion of the legalities around the professors complaint, I was interested in exploring some of the student affairs and assessment issues that arise from this lawsuit and the discussion in the article.

In particular, the line that stood out in the article for me was:

“The practice of anonymous student evaluations has, as we all know, been commercialized and put on steroids …”

While the article goes on to discuss the merits of the rating scale of a particular website, I took the comment to a broader degree and started thinking about the practice of collecting anonymous evaluations from students around anything from instructor performance to program effectiveness.

Is an anonymous evaluation a better evaluation? What information is gained when the student is allowed to remain anonymous? What information is lost?

Having been on both sides of the survey (collecting/analysing data and filling in numerous surveys), the practice of anonymous evaluation is frustrating and troubling. I often think of conversations I have with new professionals and graduate students around their use of social media. If you are so concerned about hiding your Twitter feed or what you share/post/tweet, I become more concerned about the content of your message. Would the same apply here? Why are students more at ease providing feedback anonymously? Are they afraid of hurting someone’s feelings? Are they fearful of what someone might say or do in the face of their unkind assessment of their teaching or program? Have we created a culture where we long to be connected yet still cling tightly to our privacy? What parts of ourselves must we hide when we are asked to give truthful, authentic feedback?

I am also comparing and contrasting my experience running an event debrief meeting this morning with moderating a student union supported student forum during my undergraduate co-curricular involvement. This morning, I gathered key participants and partners from my summer orientation programming to offer their feedback and suggestions around how to make things better and/or different for our next group of incoming students. The feedback was valuable and came from many important perspectives and experiences. While some participants were quieter than others, I felt no immediate hesitation in offering opinions; if anything, there was some hesitation from those who were sent on behalf of another member of their department and felt they could not offer the type of feedback we were looking for.

I compare this experience (different time, place and context notwithstanding) to moderating an anonymous student forum. As an executive member of our student government at the time and, as such, being quite (in)famous around campus due to my involvement in many large scale activities, I became one of many targets of hateful, offensive and sometimes just silly judgements of my character, appearance and relationship. I often wondered, and at times still do, if these students (whomever they were), would have offered the same level or type of ‘feedback’ if they were not anonymous. Would what they have said changed if they were posting under their own name?

What does this mean for student evaluations? The relationship between student and instructor can certainly be messy with an implied (though at times much more explicit) power dynamic, wherein evaluations are collected before the end of term and students may not want to be associated with any negatives comments about the instructor that they feel might impact their grades. While disheartening that this assumption exists at all, it brings me back to one of my original questions. In an age where we have more opportunities and seemingly more desire to be connected and known, are student evaluations one of the final frontiers for a disappearing need for privacy?

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment or Tweet Me to keep the conversation going.


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2 Responses to Should Student Evaluations Be Anonymous?

  1. Chris Conzen says:

    I definitely think fear of some kind of retribution plays a significant role for students. For so many, the class is less about the “learning” and more about “the grade”. I also don’t think we can discount the perception that evaluations are a waste of time, which I think in some instances there’s actually some truth to that. What kind of implications, if any, exist for full-time tenured faculty. Even if evaluations do play some kind of role, students see absolutely no evidence that evaluations make any kind of difference. It’s one of the reasons Rate My Professor has become so popular.

  2. Bryce Hughes says:

    I think there are multiple issues wrapped up in this one article. First, I know the reason student evaluations of instructors are anonymous and only distributed to the instructor after grades are posted is to assure the student that there is no way their evaluation will have an impact on professors. Granted, I could probably pull years of research that show student evaluations provide very little meaningful evaluation of a professor’s effectiveness, and (whenever they get this published) was part of a research project in my Master’s program where we noticed a pattern between evaluations and professor’s rank (higher ranked professors got better evaluations than lower ranked and adjunct professors). Plus, think about this–the student who does the evaluating, either on the form, on RateMyProfessor, or in conversation with her or his friends will never see the results of that evaluation. The professor may improve whatever it was the student had trouble with and yet that fact may never make it into the professor’s reputation among students.

    A second issue is regarding the status of student course evaluations. I think part of the anonymity is due to their role in the tenure and promotion process, and since tenure is considered a property right in the US, I’m sure they have some sort of legal standing. They become part of the professor’s overall tenure file that gets reviewed by the professor’s peers, college administration, and even the Board of Trustees in order to make a determination of tenure. I can’t say precisely what that would mean were they to lose their anonymity; perhaps they might actually become a more reliable method for assessing teaching effectiveness.

    A third issue is RateMyProfessor itself. I’d imagine that website is like scrolling through the comments section on your favorite news website. At least student course evaluations have some formality to them. I’d hate to see the drivel that gets posted on that kind of source of information about different professors. When the author says “on steroids,” he specifically means that the website is like the place to dump any and all of your venting about how you actually had to work in a course you had hoped to slide through.

    In terms of student affairs assessment, as you brought up program evaluation, I don’t know if it would make too much difference to remove the anonymity from program evaluations. I think, again, the assumption is people will be more honest if they know they can provide their most honest feedback without it “coming back to bite them.” And professionals want to put that kind of faith in students, to say, we’re all adults here, we can take your worst criticism. Plus, in terms of aggregating survey responses, it doesn’t matter if it has the student’s name on it or not. Maybe it’s worth an experiment–how does removing anonymity from evaluations make a difference in the feedback provided? Perhaps a good #saass topic?

    Thanks for the food for thought!


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