Demand unsigned teacher evaluations

To me, there are three things that signify that we are in that last stretch of the semester:

  1. My opinion regarding coffee goes from “I never touch the stuff” to “My heart only pumps heavily caffeinated dark roast.”
  2. I forget that showering daily is a social expectation.
  3. Instructors begin passing out course evaluation forms.

Course evaluation forms are one of the few highlights of my days during this stressful and exhausting time of the semester. That makes my life sound pretty sad, but there it is.

I love course evaluations because they are the one time that, on the institutional level, students are given any slight notion of having power over their schooling. It is the one time we are able to directly contribute to the quality of the education we receive.

For the few of you who are unaware, the course evaluations are designed as such:

The first page, or “cover page,” is full of 20-odd questions regarding the quality of the course, instruction, and the classroom facilities that are rated on a five-point scale ranging from Poor to Excellent. The questions cover a wide variety of topics that are important to consider when evaluating education from a quantitative standpoint. The information from cover pages dating all the way back to 1998 is available to  the campus community at www.coursesurvey.colostate.edu.

The second page of the survey is a space to provide comments. Only the instructor of the course, and that instructor’s boss, will ever see these comments. While the cover page information is collected and tabulated as class data, the comments are presented individually and treated as separate information from the first page. At the bottom of this page, it is “requested” that students sign their name.

The problem is, I have had some professors tell me that if I chose not to sign my name my evaluation “doesn’t count,” will “not be considered,” and even that unsigned evaluations are “immediately thrown out.”

This makes me incredibly uncomfortable as a student evaluator. We are insured that our honesty can and will not be held against us. Precautions are even taken — the instructor leaves the room while we fill out the surveys, for instance. But can the university really guarantee that a professor will not hold our critiques against us?

It is true that instructors don’t see the evaluations until after grades for that course are assigned. But that doesn’t mean that if I leave a comment saying “Professor Y did not seem to be very knowledgeable about her subject, so I, Anna Mitchell, often felt as though this class was a waste of time,” it won’t be harmful to me when I end up having another class taught by Professor Y in the future.

With these concerns in mind, I interviewed English department chair Louann Reid about what happens to evaluations after students fill them out and turn them in.

Reid informed me that having the signatures is in connection to the university-wide policy that states that, while all of the second pages are shown to professors in order to help them improve their teaching, only signed comments (good or bad) may be used when instructors receive their formal evaluations, unless the department giving the evaluation states otherwise.

The English department, for example, will consider both signed and unsigned comments in relation to the future of instructors.

“We take (all the evaluations) seriously because we take students seriously,” Reid informed me.

While I’m glad departments have the power to override it (though only some chose to), the university policy is absolutely horrific and has no benefits.

Anonymous critiques are more likely to be honest because the criticizer does not fear negative consequences that may result from their honesty. Taking away that anonymity takes away the one protection that students have. And we are are already a virtually powerless group.

Furthermore, the policy puts teachers in a tough spot. Instructors often seem uncomfortable asking students to attach their names to their opinions. But they know that issues such as raises and tenure consideration could be changed by something as small as if a student does or does not sign. These student surveys are not the sole way that instructors are judged in their formal evaluations, of course. But it is the only input that students have.

The system is unethical. It is inefficient.

My opinion should still count, even if it’s unsigned.