Sunday, June 06, 2004

coarse e-valuations

I received the brown envelope containing the student evaluations from my graduate methods class yesterday. Overall: could have been better, could have been worse. Much more could be said, and, indeed, much more was said--I was well into maybe my third paragraph here before I decided that discretion was of-course the more advisable route and began deleting.

One thing I do wish is that universities would move to a system where evaluations for all classes, undergraduate and graduate, are done online. I can think of several advantages of such a system, but here are two:

1. It would increase the anonymity of evaluations. This wasn't an issue for me this last semester, as I had students turn in all work via e-mail and so did not know the handwriting of any students. But, when I had taught the class before, I would get my evaluations like a week after I had graded a hand-written final exam, and, even though I very much would have preferred not to be able match names to evaluations I could still not help but know who about half or more of the students were from their handwriting. Instructors who teach classes which involve exposure to much student handwriting are supposed to pretend that they are so busy, so indifferent to their students, and/or so cranially overstuffed with scholarly knowledge that no brain cells could possibly be commandeered toward remembering what a large portion of their students' handwriting looks like. But, unless my casual visual memory happens to be wildly better than everyone else's, this is just another one of those Convenient Lies of College Pedagogy. And this doesn't even get into the matter of instructors who deliberately try to match the handwriting some notable evaluation to samples of students handwriting (unreturned assignments, first-day-of-class index cards) they may have in their possession.

2. An online system could include a feature where the instructor could reply to the evaluation without compromising the student anonymity. Always when I read evaluations several people offer comments for which I would like to reply with explanations or thanks or apologies or questions. At least in some cases, I'm fairly sure that the student would have much liked to receive a reply to a matter they raised. In the system I envision, students would fill out their evaluations through the same general branch of university web services that allow them to see their registration and grades. After the semester is over, faculty/TAs would receive everyone's evaluations without any identifying information. The professor could hit a reply button and reply to some particular evaluation, which would go directly to the student's e-mail account being given to the professor. The student could reply to the reply, again without any information about their identity being provided to their professor, and so on.

Okay, so I envision at least three problems:

1. Getting students to do the evaluations without providing the "captive audience" time in class. There would have to be a way of requiring students to log in and at least go through the motions of doing it for all their classes, perhaps as a prerequisite to receiving their grades. Having a a system where every student had to complete an evaluation, instead of only those who showed up on the selected date, would actually make the cross-instructor comparison of evaluations more fair, esp. at the undergraduate level, where the evaluation system gives a perversely large advantage to instructors with low attendance rates.

2. Convincing students that the system really did handle the information anonymously and that the system really, truly would not tell the professors which evaluation was theirs.

3. Dealing with the temptation of more thin-skinned instructors to send nasty replies to nasty evaluations. I am probably unusual in not myself seeing anything particularly bad about allowing instructors to do this, especially if the student had a chance to send a nasty reply back in response to the nasty reply, or whatever. I would not anticipate that I myself would want to participate in some unproductively negative exchange with a sour student, but, then again, I've been fortunate in not receiving anything ranking among the most unbelievably mean things that undergraduate students can do when provided some ill-motivation and the cover of an anonymity cloak.* I suspect this issue would probably be the dealbreaker for approval of my imagined system by the Dean's and whatever other offices would have to deal with complaints from students about a particularly spirited riposte they had received from a professor.

* A digression, but I have to tell this story. My very first semester as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa--fresh off the farm--I took this course called something like "Statistics and Society," taught by someone we will call Professor (Smarty?) Jones. I always sat between these two girls in lecture. The class was absolutely horribly taught, as if the professor had been given an index card with the topic of the day's lecture two minutes prior to the start of the class and that topic was something that he had never thought about before.

So, by the time evaluations rolled around, everyone had a pretty surly opinion of the instructor. I wrote something like, "Professor Jones was almost always poorly prepared and often did not seem to exert much effort in explaining materials clearly to students." I remember feeling quite pleased with myself that I had written something conveying the strength of my negative assessment of Professor Jones. But then I looked at the evaluation the girl on my left had written, which was, succinctly enough, "Professor Jones SUCKS!!!" And, then, I looked at what the girl on my right had written, which was "Professor Jones is a [four word phrase here]" where that four word phrase was--and, yes, I realize that I had lived a quite sheltered upbringing out there on the farm--the single lewdest thing that I had read in my entire life to that point, managing with miraculous concision to assert a sexual history that involved simultaneously the ingestion of bodily fluids, immediate family members, and livestock.

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