John is one of the laziest students I have ever had. He sat in the back of the class and slept through most of my presentations. When I called on him, he simply answered, "I don't know." Not only is he lazy, but he's stupid.
Compare this to one of the comments I received on my teacher evaluation.
The instructor did not know anything about the topic. When I asked her a question in class, she wasn't able to answer it so I could understand it.
In both cases, the feedback is not really useful. In the first case, an instructor would be slammed if they wrote this type of comment on a student report card, if they were even asked for feedback on the student (it does not happen at the university level). In both cases, it would be important to have more information on both the writer and the person being evaluated. What is their relationship? How long have they known each other? How well was the student doing in the class? This would at least give some context.
More importantly, however, is that the person receiving the feedback would be able to critique the feedback and determine if it was justified or not.
Who is responsible for learning?
As you can probably tell, I received student feedback for my fall courses this semester. In addition to this feedback, which I like to evaluate and help direct me in preparing for my current courses, I also received direction at the one school on what our syllabus should include. These included such items as:
- school vision and learning goals,
- university vision and learning goals
- attendance policies
- policies for making up tests
- policies for late assignments
- accommodations for students with disabilities
- teaching methods
- classroom atmosphere
- work load expectations
- academic integrity
- grading policies
- Cell phone use
There are two reasons for this level of detail in a syllabus:
- As opposed to when I started teaching in college (and was one of the few to have a syllabus of more than 1 page, some teachers not even having a syllabus), the syllabus IS a contract (isn't even considered LIKE a contract) which can be used in a court of law.
- New federal laws and guidelines passed in 2008 (NCLB for higher ed) requires that students be given this information. Rather than the administration spending time and money doing this in orientations (many times not required or students may be unable to attend), they incorporate it into the classroom. While this ensures a student will be informed of their rights, it also puts legal responsibility on the instructor, and gives the instructor even more administrative work to do (so why aren't instructors paid twice the salaries of top administrators?).
Student learning outcomes
This can have very disturbing outcomes for how we are preparing students for the workplace and student work ethics. As students are given detailed instructions on how to learn, and expect only to be assessed on those "standards", they will not stretch beyond what is given them. Why should they?
Likewise, assessing the "softer" skills will be more difficult and could result in a law suit. This means that all creativity will be knocked out of the students. Expect to see creativity in the workplace from those WITHOUT education. The entrepreneurs of tomorrow will probably be the drop-outs of today because the educational system has not supported the expansion of ideas.
Interestingly enough, I see our society becoming more like those of eastern Europe during communist rule. While working in Hungary, I found that the most successful workers were those that were used to doing what they were told to do, always deferring to the person above them (as they would get the blame). The entrepreneurs in Hungary were those that had been unsuccessful in school and the civil service.
Anonymity in evaluations
This brings me back to the question in my title. In the former system, universities implemented student questionnaires to get a feeling for how students perceived their learning. As most courses were not standardized, one measure for effectiveness was student satisfaction. However, if a student did not feel that evaluation was "objective" and their grade might be affected by giving frank feedback, most schools made these evaluations anonymous. Of course, back when these were first implemented, students were not used to giving teachers feedback. Instructors were still perceived as "gods" and students were reluctant to give critical feedback.
Additionally, most of the evaluations were hand written (as were assignments). A good teacher could still determine who wrote what, if they were engaged with their students. I often was able to contextualize the comments based on who the student was who wrote it. Because I received the comments long after grades were due, even if I was unprofessional enough, I couldn't change the student's grade. I received some valuable feedback through these evaluations, especially if I was able to figure out who the student was. In some cases, I was also able to disregard the comments, knowing that a certain student would never like my teaching style.
Now we come to the age of computerized evaluations. First, this means that students self-select if they will fill out the questionnaire. When it was given in the class (the teacher leaving the classroom, but college staff administering the evaluation), more students were apt to participate, even if they were indifferent. With the evaluations being online, the indifferent student will be less likely to take the time out to fill it out. Second, there is no context anymore with the evaluations. I am given a summary of the results and a summary of the comments. So did the student hate everything about my class or just the fact that they had to take the class (they would have hated it regardless of the teacher--typical for public speaking classes). These disembodied comments make it difficult for me to determine what I could have done better. Finally, these evaluations are now used to justify the hiring or retention of faculty member, the "effectiveness" of a college, and even strategic planning.
However, my students have never felt intimidated to express their displeasure in my class. I often hear complaints about how my assignments are "subjective" (I think the word they are really looking for is complex), they have too much work to do (even though I have had to outline my work expectations at the beginning of the course, and this does not change), and how other classmates aren't as smart, hardworking, etc... So why should they worry about putting their name to a course evaluation? Especially if the instructor will not see the evaluation until after final grades have been given?
So back to my opening comment. What would happen if students were not given individual grades for each course, but were asked to evaluate (anonymously) each student on skills such as critical thinking, class preparedness, content mastery, communication skills, ability to express themselves in text, technology, etc... Each semester, these evaluations would be aggregated for a grade, and comments would be summarized. At the end of four years, these evaluations would be sent to the school to review and decide if the student qualified for a degree. In addition, these aggregated scores would be sent to all potential employers. What kind of uproar do you believe would result? Wouldn't students want to know who graded them how and why? Why is this different for instructors?