Hand completion of a multiple choice course survey.

It’s that time of year, again.  In college classrooms everywhere, professors are passing out course evaluations or trucking their students to computer labs.  While many schools have gone to course evals separated from the class times, quite a few have retained their in-seat ones or, as my institution has chosen, have gone to a mix.  I am taking the time to write this post because I believe that there is a potential for ethics to be violated with in-class evaluations.

The Moral Ambiguity of In-Seat Course Evaluations

In many institutions, the course evaluation is used to measure the effectiveness of the instructor of a course.  This may have an impact on next year’s contract, promotion, tenure, and (in merit-based raises) even salary!  For many, this may be the only tool used to assess the effectiveness of the instructor.

Let me pose some examples where morality rears its head:

  1. I have a large group of athletes in the course who travel regularly.  As is often the case with students who travel frequently for sports, their averages are probably lower than they could be; one has an F and one a D at this point in the course.  At some point, I explained to them that their grades are impacted because of their choice to play sports.  (At my institution, an NCAA Div. III school, they are not on scholarship; they play because they want to do so.)  As a consequence, our interactions have become strained.  I am untenured.
    Dilemma:  I can choose to offer those evals on a day where I know they’ll be away at a tournament.  Choosing a day (probably spontaneously) where they will be there almost guarantees that a different group will be absent AND considerably limits the days I could offer the evaluations.
  2. Early in the term, I confronted a student with family ties to the administration who I blatantly caught cheating.  She denied it, institutional process was observed and (as a first time offender) this student was given a zero on the assessment.   She has been difficult ever since and her attendance has become irregular (particularly on Fridays).  Although I’ve continued to show kindness and have been fair, her frustration continues to be visible.  Potential promotion to full professor is next year.
    Dilemma:  Do I trust in the wisdom of the people who will read the reviews or try to choose a day where I expect that she won’t attend?  This person has a distinct vocabulary and writing style; her commentary will be clear.

Clearly those two examples are highly constructed.  For those of us reading these examples the moral “high ground” may also be clear.  But, in those situations, the choice may not be so easy and may not be this obvious.

People Evaluating People

The problem is that we’re all people:  those evaluating and those being evaluated!  As a professor, you might be the sole source of income for your family.  Getting poor reviews may seem like a choice over whether you make the house payment or not.  As a student, the evaluation may feel like an opportunity to gain footing in what appears to be a powerless situation.

For robots with a solidly defined moral code, these choices are easy.  I’m not a robot.

Here’s What I Propose

If course evaluations are this important–and they are at some institutions–foolproof them.

  1. Maximize participation by either making it a component of the course (not a bonus, but a grade) or by choosing to not release grades for a term until course evaluations for that term have been completed.  This would mean that transcripts could not be released for students who are transferring, students enrolling at graduate schools, or students seeking their first job.
  2. Although we often attempt a blind evaluation process by removing the professor from the room while students take the exam, ten minutes may not be enough time to internalize feelings about the course or to verbalize events that may have occurred.  By making the process one that is time-unconstrained, students have the opportunity to express their feelings (good and bad).  This implies that there is either a center set up for testing (if paper) or an online variant of the evaluation.
  3. If the exams must take place in the class room, as they often do, then try to remove any biases that you might create (as an instructor) throughout the term.  Consider scheduling the evaluations to happen on a specific date in the last half of the term.  Then the students know you and know that a date has been chosen.  If that date is part of the syllabus (gasp!) then the student body should be consulted in order for the time to move.


I am clearly NOT unbiased in this regard.  I’m opposed to the ongoing evaluation of courses by students in the way that most of us have taken course evaluations.  But, if you have to do them, try to make them as useful and unfiltered as possible.

Remember, we do these not to be promoted but to improve our teaching styles and to refine our classrooms.

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The Moral Ambiguity of In-Seat Course Evaluations
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