Should a Professor’s Teaching Evaluations Be in the Public Domain?

At the end of a semester, university students fill out teaching evaluations.  The students can write whatever they want and hand in their bubble sheets and their written comments.  Do other students at the same university have the right to see these comments as they choose whether to take a course with that professor?  My answer is “yes” but apparently there are many Columbia professors who disagree.

I  think that a university teacher’s evaluations should all be posted on an easily to access public webpage.  If a student anonymously says something rude about the Professor as a person, then I can see that this should be removed while trying to minimize censorship.    My question for the RBC community is whether “sunshine laws” work or whether old school professors such as a Harvey Mansfield would receive so much public hate that this would nudge such scholars to change their game to try to be popular and this would have long run negative consequences for learning?

UPDATE:   Could this WSJ blog entry offer the real reason for the Columbia opposition?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

17 thoughts on “Should a Professor’s Teaching Evaluations Be in the Public Domain?”

  1. When I was an undergrad at Cal long ago the SLATE Supplement was published every quarter by an independent student group and rated many of the Profs. The big problem I recall hearing about was that the Profs who got a great rating could be overwhelmed by students wanting to get into their classes.

    And, of course, the Profs who got bad ratings found it very hard to believe: “But, I am a great teacher!”.

    Overall, the effect of the ratings was positive. And, it sure helped me to avoid what I am sure would have been some torture classes.

    Unfortunately, none of my Profs qualified as hot so the Italian study did not come into play.

  2. I honestly fail to see why profs should be allowed some sacred space in which to be arbitrary, unfair, illogical or irrelevant with both the impunity which they ALREADY LARGELY HAVE in most institutions and also ANONYMITY to their patrons, that is, the people who will pay $5000 + for their classes.

    This is no different from saying that Consumer Reports shouldn’t be able to run customer satisfaction surveys. I’m paying for my daughter to go through nursing school today. This includes about 18 months of pre-reqs at the college level, plus a 2-year nursing degree. We have an outstanding public schooling program here which means I’m only out about $30k for classes and books.

    If I was paying an equivalent amount, say $1000 per class, for ANY item, I’d want to hear feedback from customers. I’m grown up enough to know that some people will be impossible to please and some will write negative reviews based on ridiculous reasons. But when I see a 90% negative feedback on an item I’d otherwise spend $1000 on, I think it’s reasonable to start demanding answers from the provider of that service. Why on EARTH should college professors be immune to the same grassroots consumer reporting that every other product and service in the world must deal with? Welcome to the 21st century when consumers have a choice and crappy profs who charge outrageous amounts for a class only to have their grad students teach 98% of it are held to account. -It’s about damned time!

  3. EDITED THE ABOVE TO ADD:

    I teach adult classes on a specific subject. Many of my students are only there because someone else insists on them being there. They have no great interest in my subject. MY job, as an instructor is to keep the subject matter interesting, relevant and on point to the point that I have pretty well all of my students writing rave reviews about me and my classes. You don’t reach all of them, but you can certainly reach most of them, if you make an effort.

    A good teacher can make almost any subject fascinating for her lecture students AND be a very tough grader. Interested students are students who grasp the subject matter and will do well on relevant tests. That has been my experience through the years.

    Teachers’ consistent failure to grasp the imagination and motivate their students is something I hear myriads about. And when I listen to the people lamenting, it rarely takes more than 30 seconds to see where the problem lies. -HINT, it’s not the students. This is one of my biggest complaints with academia, which doesn’t hire and promote great teachers. It hires and promotes great publishers of crap no one will ever read and no one, even at current level, really cares much about.

  4. I’ve found it useful to have a mechanism where students can give anonymous private feedback to instructors.

    As long as that exists, I’m happy for anything else to be public.

  5. I’m mostly wondering if there’s any demonstrable benefit to having evaluations public (or at least widely publicized).

    Not because of the potential conflict between a professor’s privacy and a student’s freedom of speech — after all, there are already enough rate-my-teacher websites around, so that horse left the barn long ago — but because I’m not sure if publicizing these results actually improves teaching in a measurable way?

    For a somewhat related example, does having public confirmation hearings (instead of closed ones) for Supreme Court judges actually do anything?

  6. In my institution, a state university, evaluations are voluntary rather than required. I’ve long had a real problem with this. It means that I frequently receive evaluations from 25% or less of my students, generally from the good students, but occasionally a harsh evaluation from a student who I’ve graded poorly at midterm and who knows they will do badly at the final. The evaluation becomes an act of unfair retribution–a punishment to the professor for handing out a bad grade.

    I’ve also never understood why evaluations are anonymous. As professors, we are responsible (by name) for the grades we hand out. With this comes a responsibility to be fair, honest, and unbiased. We must stand by our grade. But with an anonymous evaluation, no such responsibility exists: students are free even to bend the truth with no real consequence to them.

  7. I’ve also never understood why evaluations are anonymous.

    Isn’t that obvious? If evaluations were not anonymous, it would seriously distort the interactions between faculty and students:

    * Professors would be tempted to punish students who had given them poor evaluations in previous classes (by giving them poor grades in later classes, refusing to hire them as lab assistants, sabotaging them in letters of recommendation, etc.)

    * Knowing that their evaluations would be public, students would tend to “bribe” their professor with good evaluations, in hopes of getting preferential treatment on grades, hiring, letters of recommendation, etc.

    My university has a very comprehensive internal course evaluation system, and students are required to fill out evaluations for all their courses before they can view their grades online. I believe the evaluations are visible to all students, and to department chairs, but not to the rest of the faculty (nor to outsiders).

    I have no problem with this system. In fact, it seems just about optimal to me. I really don’t *want* to be in a position of knowing which students have said what about me.

  8. “My university has a very comprehensive internal course evaluation system, and students are required to fill out evaluations for all their courses before they can view their grades online.”

    This was the system at the university where I previously taught–but isn’t mandatory at my current university, where evaluations are optional. The optional evaluation seems deeply flawed to me. As a result, only a few diligent or seriously disgruntled students fill them out, often already knowing that they’ve received a bad grade.

    Of course I believe in anonymity in evaluations, assuming that other measures are there to keep the evaluations relatively objective on the whole, ie required evaluations where one negative review out of 20 will only slightly skew the mean.

  9. What value would the official course evaluations add? I can’t believe (knowing that 30 years ago my college had a briskly-selling book of unofficial evaluations) that there aren’t already plenty of avenues for students to get an idea of which professors are good to take classes from and which aren’t, or what different professors’ grading policies look like. I would suggest that publishing the “official” version might even reduce information, because some students (anecdotally speaking) definitely skew their responses in the belief that a teacher’s colleagues and superiors will be taking a look. (And of course any attempt to excise “rudeness” would likely end in disaster, because rudeness is obvious, while factually inaccurate statements are not.)

    Ignoring for the moment the de-anonymization problem, if official evaluations were public, they should be cross-tabbed by grade, prospective major and whatever other data might be available. Premed students hated the intro physics course I took, for example, but the handful of physics majors worshipped the water the professor walked on. That kind of information might actually be useful.

  10. In theory, publishing evaluations sounds great. After all, everybody should be accountable, and there should be some way to inform your pricey choices beforehand. But then again, as has been pointed out, in the day of Rate My Professor and similar, there is ample opportunity to inform those choices. Also, even before the internet, even before formal evaluations, I don’t think that (after my freshman year) I ever went into a class without knowing more or less what to expect. Should all information be always at everyone’s fingertips? Or should students maybe learn to inquire?

    Then too, let us not forget who is doing most of these evaluations — undergraduates. Young people will always have a tendency to be thoughtless, snarky, judgmental and gratuitously cruel and in today’s undergraduate — ever more distracted, helicoptered, and ill-prepared — that tendency may be especially pronounced. Yesterday I asked a friend of mine how her teaching (at a large state university) was going and I got a surprising and hilarious diatribe about how her students were (with one or two exceptions per class) spoiled, ignorant, lazy, inarticulate, and above all combatively ENTITLED to an A for merely showing up and doing the minimum, or less. And these are the people who will be evaluating a brilliant, eloquent, impassioned scholar. Fortunately she’s also beautiful so she may get off relatively easy.

    At the risk of sounding too Ivory Tower — it seems to me that the real worth of a class is not something the adolescent can evaluate very well on or around its last day. Certainly a few of the classes I took, which stuck me at the time as amorphous or too diffuse have resonated over time, really meaning something. But I doubt if I would have rated the professors very highly in the immediate aftermath, and I know my more philistine classmates wouldn’t have.

    Finally, I suppose anonymous evaluations are indeed a practical necessity. But as the comments in many a blog and all local newpapers attest, anonymity brings out the very worst in many people, which is all the more reason why official evaluations should be the business of the professor and his superiors, and not a public pillory.

  11. Given that ratemyprofessor and other sites like it are already out there, I think it is a good idea for evaluations to be public. Instead of having just a few random student representing the thousands who have taken your class, you would get a much more accurate representation of what the students think. My only issue, as others above have stated, is that the knowledge that comments will be published, can have a dramatic effect on what students say. That can be good or bad. Some students believe that no one ever reads their evaluations, so they don’t bother writing anything. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case if they knew their comments would be made public. I personally started showing students some of my old evaluations–a lot of it for comedy– on the first day of class. What I found is that my number of responses and length of responses have gone way up through the years. I get a lot more silly comments, which are fun to read and to show in subsequent classes, but I also find many more useful comments than I had before. If having public comments can help me improve, I’m all for it.

    1. This is what I came here to say. Half the time I search on-line for a
      colleague, I meet RateMyProfessor first. I would rather have the
      results of official university surveys up instead since, although
      optional, they still get many more people responding than go write on
      RateMyProfessor. (And as such, they are less self-selected by
      vociferousness of complaint.)

  12. The interesting question is not why professors oppose it, but why students are asking for it.

    We have been doing student evaluations for forty years now. Does anyone use the results? When I first started teaching, I tried to use the evaluations for feedback, but the loop was too long and I gave up. It may well be that administrations do react to student evaluations in extreme cases (continued low evaluations across a variety of classes for a couple of semesters might lead to intervention), but institutions that actually care about teaching for retention, tenure and promotion, it seems to me, make sure to evaluate that teaching via faculty observations.

    Student evaluations have dwindled into a ritual: the musical banks of academe. The results are ignored by administrators and faculty alike. Columbia was one of the initiators of them. IIRC, instituting them was one of the demands of ’68. Releasing them to students might breathe some life into them.

  13. I sure hope the comment about Harvey Mansfield was tongue-in-cheek–the only negative consequence I can think of is Harvey C Minus’s continued presence in the classroom.

    As has been pointed out, most top-level universities (and many smaller colleges) already have a system that is effectively public. The average scores on evaluation categories are tabulated and published, as are most open comments. Taking this further, I would agree that virtually all comments should be published, with the following exceptions: 1) student’s specific request that his/her comments not be published; 2) comments that are intended to offend rather than be constructive–i.e., “This f-ing asshole does not deserve to live” need not be reproduced; 3) comments that an independent ombudsman or a committee (such evaluations are often handled by special student or student-faculty committees) judges to be clearly identifying the author. I can’t think of any other comments that one might want to “censor”. On the other hand, the indexing questions are usually so uninformative or plain stupid that most published averages are useless. And, if the averages are published, they should be offered along with detailed distribution. Someone who is polarizing in the sense that he gets half perfect and half awful evaluations should be distinguishable from someone who’s mediocre across the board. There is no point publishing the averages only compilations–they are useless.

  14. I would do away with personal evaluations, which tend to turn into popularity contests, have grades be determined by exams set and graded by external examiners on the basis of the course material, with exam papers being anonymized. Class grades should be publicly available, although without identifying individual grade recipients and should constitute the evidence for how effective a teacher is. If students knew that the professor did not control their grades, they would spend less time toadying and be much more interested in getting good teaching on the relevant material. Some may object that you can’t grade term papers that way. My response is that very few undergraduate term papers are worth reading and even fewer are remotely original. Having students produce them is generally a waste of time for all concerned. Lose the term papers and save everyone grief. Have students submit qualifying papers to their chosen departments at the end of their sophomore and junior years, with separate tutorials for this purpose. Everyone should write a thesis in their senior year.

  15. I find that student assessments track my own personal self-assessment. Those of my colleagues also track pretty well with my relative impression of their teaching. I don’t see a problem in principle – most student evaluations are actually very positive, so it’s not as if we’re hiding some dark secret.

    However, teaching evaluations are not designed as “grades for the teacher”; they’re designed as tools to improve teaching. That’s why I (and a lot of my colleagues) supplement the formal check-box evaluations with custom narrative feedback forms, which we take seriously. As in any other forum, confidential feedback has a role, and people can tell you things in private that they wouldn’t in public. That’s a major reason to keep at least comments private. Do we really want universities maintaining ratings of professor hotness?

    A comparison with Ratemyprofessor, etc. points out some other problems. A lot of the reviews on public sites are similar to product reviews: people come in and complain because they got a bad grade or had a bad experience, and the majority doesn’t bother. On my narrative feedbacks I always get a few complaining that the course was far too hard and a few complaining that it was far too easy (same course!) I get a few complaining that they were expecting an easy A and didn’t get it. And yet I know, from the feedback, that the large majority are happy with the balance – and that it’s impossible to please everyone.

    Finally, there are elements in student reviews that are completely outside the control of the professor. The exact same professor will get lower ratings if the class is at an inconvenient time or a poor room. Major classes will all get better reviews than general education classes. Size matters. In short, you can almost predict the evaluations when you assign the courses, and there is more than a little unfairness in treating them purely as a measure of teacher quality.

  16. Marc hit on some of my uneasiness with student evaluations. Most good professors attempt to grade students objectively, free from externalities such as a student’s odd demeanor, whether he has bad breath, whether she seemed tired in class. The course syllabus offers a roadmap and criterion for grading that every student knows in advance. The professor is publicly held responsible for the grades and comments they give, in the sense that their name and reputation is attached to the grading even though the grades are not public. Grading and teaching therefore become a weighty enterprise often fraught with anxiety: e.g. do I give student X a D, even if it is their last semester and will cause them to not graduate? The onus is on the professor to remain objective, fair, and truthful.

    But student evaluations are fundamentally subjective. The criteria will differ from student to student–I had one student accuse me of being too “affable” in class, which might generally be thought of as a positive. Others complain about lab hours and policies, which I have no control over, or other externalities. I’ve seen complaints from undergrads about aspects of a course that might benefit them later in ways they can’t possibly yet understand. I’ve seen colleagues who are brilliant researchers and teachers receive poor evaluations because they’re not charming and affable but maybe a little awkward–or too difficult, when the subject matter is inherently difficult.

    My fear is that evaluations often become like the comment boards for popular tv shows: is it funny/friendly/entertaining/easy enough? Academics prize their own objectivity and rigor, and yet the student evaluation process doesn’t always follow that kind of rigor. Ratemyprofessor and the Columbia proposal make higher education into a popularity contest, a tv ratings game, and posits the entire university system as a product (education) being sold to a consumer (the student.)

    In fact, a good university education is challenging, critical, and perhaps confrontational in a way that no relationship between a consumer and product is.

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