Disconnect Between Professors and Students on Course Evaluations

Vijay Iyer/Fourth Estate


There is a clear disconnect between students and faculty on course evaluations.

On Wednesday, April 24, the Faculty Senate (see if you can follow this) passed a motion to recommend advancing a proposal of the revised Course Evaluation Form to both the Office of Institutional Research & Effectiveness (OIRE) and the Provost for pilot-testing next academic year.

The changes to the Course Evaluation Form and the proposals passed in the last Faculty Senate meeting weaken students’ voice in the course evaluation process.

This time, debate was more contentious than in the last Faculty Senate meeting. Professors raised concerns over whether questions on the Course Evaluation Form were applicable to classes of different sizes. Professors were also concerned about whether the pilot-testing would apply to non-tenured faculty.  

Multiple amendments were proposed, but only one passed, and it was merely to change the motion’s wording. Concerns were various and sundry, but they all shared one characteristic: they weren’t about students. In fact, one professor even mentioned eliminating the student information section of the form entirely.

The only exception was computer science professor Daniel Menasce, who wanted to add an item to the Course Evaluation Form that said, “The professor seemed knowledgeable about the subject.”  

Menasce said, “My students appreciate it when I go beyond what’s in the textbook.” He explained that when students feel like the professor doesn’t know anything beyond what’s in the textbook, the classroom experience is much worse. As a student, I agree wholeheartedly. Foreseeing a possible objection that students would not have an accurate sense of the knowledge of the professor, he simply said, “Our students are smart enough.” It was refreshing to see a professor acknowledge the student voice, and have faith in students’ ability to rate professors.

His faith is not widespread. At long last, the Effective Teaching Committee (ETC), which wrote the recommendations, responded to questions from me over email. I encourage you to read the full question and answer here. It is clear they do not believe students to be capable of rating teaching.

The ETC wrote, “Student learning is the ultimate goal of a course, and experienced students are in a good position to assess their own learning through candid self-assessment. Students are less prepared to understand how people learn and how to objectively compare pedagogical approaches used in a learning environment that facilitated or hindered their learning outcomes.”

Vijay Iyer/Fourth Estate

If you had to read that a few times to make sense of it, it’s not because you’re dumb. The ETC is saying that students are good at assessing their own learning, but bad at assessing teaching overall. Aren’t teaching and learning two sides of the same coin? Isn’t it true that each student learns differently, and what works for one student may not work for another? The Course Evaluation Form doesn’t ask how people learn generally. It asks how you learned individually. That’s why the Course Evaluation Form is filled out individually by each student and then averaged.

ETC continued to say, “In addition, students have a good sense of liking or disliking a course or an instructor, and there is a risk that likability may substitute for an objective understanding of facilitated learning outcomes or teaching effectiveness.”

What’s wrong with that? Students pay thousands of dollars to take a class, so if they don’t like it, they have the right to be able to say so. There is no recognition by ETC that students are consumers of a product here at Mason. Part of providing a product effectively is making sure the consumer likes it. If student voices matter, part of that voice is saying whether students like or dislike a class. Plus, you can’t possibly tell me likability doesn’t play a role in students’ final grades —the expression “teacher’s pet” was not conjured from the ether, and the students to whom it applies get fantastic grades.

ETC also wrote, “We believe that student voices are important. Therefore, we are suggesting that faculty collect student feedback more than once per semester.” They go on to say this could include midterm evaluations.

The School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) already does midterm evaluations of teaching. A student in an S-CAR class described to me what that was like. Since this student is currently enrolled in that class, I do not want to jeopardize this student’s final grade, so I will keep this student anonymous.

The professor invited students to write strengths and weaknesses about the class on the board and then left the room for about five minutes. The students in the class wrote things on the board, and the professor returned to the classroom. The professor, visibly upset, then went through the list of weaknesses and refuted each one. “I couldn’t believe there was so much conflict in a conflict resolution class,” the student told me.

The concerns of midterm evaluations are obvious, at least to students. However, the ETC wrote: “Research suggests that student feedback can best be used for formative purposes, that is, for improvement of teaching.  Summative evaluation, which takes place at the end of the semester, is too late for faculty to make improvements so that the current students will benefit from them.” As the example above shows, providing honest, negative feedback about a professor in the middle of the semester is extremely risky because that professor has authority over the student’s final grade. The end of the semester allows a time for honest feedback precisely because the professor will not see that feedback until the course is over.

Why does the ETC not see these concerns? Because they are looking at course evaluations as a professional performance evaluation tool. When asked if they view final course evaluations as analogous to students’ final grades, the ETC said no, writing that, “Course evaluations are used for a variety of purposes, among them being to make career decisions such as contract renewal, granting tenure or promotion and merit pay. As such, they are subject to federal and state laws on employment discrimination and must be shown to be valid and reliable measures of faculty performance.”

The first sentence of that answer is also true of students’ final grades. How? Final grades could affect whether a student meets prerequisites for higher level classes, graduates on time or gets accepted into graduate/law school—all of which impact students’ career decisions tremendously.

The second sentence of that answer seems difficult to believe. Discrimination laws were never mentioned in the ETC recommendations. Their claim is that the overall rating questions are biased against women, minorities and the disabled. Those questions have been on Mason’s form for many years, and are certainly on the evaluation forms of universities all over the country. Have they all really been breaking federal law for years without any consequences? And if Mason is currently in violation of federal law, why are we taking our grand old time to make changes? According to the ETC, these proposals are five years in the making.

On Thursday I spoke with Joshua Erlich, an attorney in Arlington specializing in employment law, on the phone. I asked him about the ETC’s statement that course evaluations are subject to employment discrimination law.

“By saying they are subject, I am not quite sure what that means,” Erlich told me. “If a faculty member is looking at responses, and those responses are discriminatory in some way, if they are racist or sexist, that could contribute to a discriminatory work environment. Certainly, if you were a teacher of color and you were looking at evaluations that were openly racist, I could see someone coming into my office for that.”

I asked ETC if they were aware of any specific cases of discrimination based on course evaluations at Mason. Answer: none.

Erlich also said there could be a question of systemic disparate impact, which is when a neutral process produces discriminatory results. “If they found through analysis that members of protected classes were getting harmed, it could be a disparate impact issue,” he told me. “Taking proactive steps is the appropriate thing for an employer to do.”

I asked the ETC about bias in professor peer-review. If the alleged discrimination is implicit bias having a systemic disparate impact, having professors evaluate instead of students would not fix the problem since professors and students are both human beings. The ETC wrote that they plan “to prepare faculty for peer review by providing training in this process in order to limit bias and ensure the reliability of results.” So they can train the bias out of professors but not out of students? Are students more racist than professors?

I also asked them if there was any research where Mason professors are the population of interest.  “We are unaware of any reports or published research on Mason instructors,” they wrote. If only there were a university standing committee or an entire university office that could do some research here.

The ETC sees course evaluations as a matter of professional performance evaluation and limiting bias, but course evaluations should be a matter of consumer feedback for students who are paying thousands of dollars for an education. And students aren’t going to give up their voice easy.

Camden Layton, student body president, told me Student Government’s plan of action going forward on this issue. The changes aren’t due to take effect until next year at the earliest, so Layton hopes to get a resolution through the student senate in the fall.

“Going forward, we will definitely try to work more with the administration to make sure students have a voice in this,” Layton told me.  “We want to be a part of this process.”

In attendance at the meeting were sophomore Mackenzie Nelson and freshman Sami Gibbs, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Student Senate University Academics Committee. They met with Professor Lorraine Valdez Pierce, chair of the ETC, before the meeting and said it was productive. They told me they hope to meet with her and others in the fall.

We don’t need to leave this issue only to Student Government. First, fill out your course evaluation forms this semester while you still can. Second, make your voices heard by sharing this article on social media. It’s really easy to take our voices away if we don’t use them.

I don’t have to tell you how expensive a university education is. Shouldn’t those thousands of dollars at least purchase the privilege to have a voice in evaluating the product?