I must be alone. Apparently, the thought level on this subject is so high I can not hope to understand it. Or it is so common as to be unquestionable by anyone. I’m talking about those surveys that are handed out to college students near the end of each semester asking them to rate their professor on a variety of skills. The surveys are supposed to be anonymous, although I’m sure I’m not the first student to be highly suspicious of this administration claim. Considering the time and expense for all involved, I struggle to comprehend how these surveys could be of any use - to anyone. The only sad answer I keep coming back to is that they are a token gesture toward students who don’t think very far beyond their #2 pencil. Maybe I’m wrong.

If I look at it from the professor’s side of things, here’s what I see: fear that he or she will be rated as a reflection of the grade or grading of the particular student that is filling out the survey. In fact, I’d hardly be surprised if an independent study were to ever demonstrate that poorly-performing students gave their professors poor ratings - and vice-versa. If I was a professor that had given the whole class A’s and B’s, except for a solitaire D to one student, it would be no shock to learn that my worst rating came from that same student. In fact, I think I’d expect it. This leads me to believe that professors are going to be tempted to do one of two things: either grade high, in essence being the “nice teacher” that students call “cool” in closed circles, or for the more ethical professors, keep grades a bit mysterious.

Even if an instructor does neither of those, how seriously are they going to take the feedback of a group of students, especially when the vast majority of students would hardly dare put their real opinion on the survey, tilting the results more favorably than could be expected? It is unimaginable that any significant change results by these surveys.

From the student’s side, they have every reason to fill out the survey with caution. Despite the anonymous nature of the surveys, instructors have had twelve weeks or more to evaluate you as a person, evaluate your work, even your handwriting, or prior bubble-filled Scantrons. Even though few professors would bother (or care) to play “guess the grumpy student”, every student in the back of their head knows it is a possibility. Even if you are a student getting an “A” despite a professor who has done more to hurt than help, it is highly unlikely you would put anything but the mildest of suggestive improvements on a survey. A scathing review of the professor, if found out, could have disastrous effects. Most students learn early on not to bite the hand that feeds you.

All serious flaws in professors are eventually outed. The criminal ones are exposed, the negligent ones fired, the incompetent ones promoted. The student surveys have no effect or bearing on these life processes. Yet college after college continues to give them out with an inflated air of importance.

I’ve yet to fill one out. I politely decline - to the professor’s face. On the rare occasion (twice) that I’ve been challenged by this, typically wrongly equating it to not voting an election, I simply respond that I’d rather spend my ten minutes learning more of the course material (that I paid for) and that my professor would be better off improving his career by consulting professionals in his field, not students busy trying to learn a subject. One of the professor’s agreed, but stated that the results help the school. I dryly responded that the school, I hope, has far greater tools of evaluating professional educators than to put the question forward to a bunch of snot-nosed kids who have every motivation to be biased in some way. The failing students will complain, the succeeding students typically praise, the middle-ground scales upward toward praise (remembering that the final is several weeks away), and no one is surprised - not the teacher, not the students.

It is an exercise in futility. It wastes enormous resources: paper, time, money. It creates meaningless statistics. It, quite frankly, allows poor professors to continue in their jobs a bit too long. And it misses the opinions of those who have the courage to make the tough decisions early - the ones who switch on add/drop week or withdrawal. No one asks these students their opinion. I’m one of those. I usually decide in ten to twenty minutes whether or not I’ll be back next class. I can spot a lousy educator a mile away: the slackers, the “cool” guys who will be letting us go early every week, the wink*wink* no final teachers, the laugh at their own non-jokes, the “I’m here to help - see me after class” types, and of course, the never-ending stream of professors who love their job just a little too much - and don’t love their subject nearly enough.

So, when will colleges start using genuine surveys? Allow students to post what they really think of professors after a class is over. Already, RateMyProfessor.com allows this to some effect - although they edit tightly some comments. But, any student who has read their handbook knows that their degree can be taken away by the college board. A too-scathing review could put that hard-earned degree in jeopardy. I’m not advocating libel. An untrue statement should always be appealable by a professor. But telling the truth to the school after it is all said and done - and done via a web-interface direct to the school administration, with an opportunity for public comments posted on a school website (if the student is willing to give their name too) would be more useful. It would also not be subject to the professor collecting (and reading) their own reviews prior to submission (creating an opportunity for fraud). And finally, it would give the administration a more accurate picture of how students really feel about an instructor (since that is what they claim to be interested in) without detracting from class time.

Posted in: Ideas