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Course evaluations aren’t asking the right questions

How professors treat students should be taken into account

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course evaluations

Filling out course evaluations can often be my favorite part of a class. I think I’m in the minority of people who diligently fill out one for nearly all my professors — as a psychology major, I have a deep-seated respect for good data — and usually, it’s pretty standard stuff.

But sometimes, when a class is truly terrible, I have the distinct joy of airing ten weeks worth of grievances in those little white boxes. And as far as I’ve seen, there’s no word limit.

What there is a limit on, however, is the kind of complaints I can make. Understandably, course evaluations are generally focused on how effectively the professor or teaching assistant (TA) is teaching the material. It asks questions such as how good they are at providing alternative explanations, how engaging they were, and how much work and time you, as a student, put into the class.

These evaluations are the only way for professors to gauge how well they’re reaching their students, besides Rate My Professors, which suffers from voluntary response bias in that people generally only post ratings when they’re either extremely fond of a professor or extremely unimpressed.

However, there are arguments for why course evaluations are equally not useful: that students who get better grades fill out more positive ones, and they are also certainly gender-biased. As a student who feels degraded and demotivated by the summing up of my whole being in just one or two numbers, I empathize with professors who feel their effort is unrepresented by the array of boxes their students check. In fact, studies have shown that there is almost no correlation between a student’s ability to evaluate their own learning and recognize a professor’s teaching as effective.

But something that students are very good at is evaluating whether they felt safe, respected, and represented in a classroom. Just this week, I sat in the back of my lecture hall, seething as my biology professor went over sex development of humans, and continually referred to biological sex (our internal and external genitalia, determined by both chromosomes and hormones throughout prenatal development) as gender (which is an identity, and does not necessarily correspond with biological externalities).

While my gender and sex are the same and my personal reality wasn’t being dismissed, I felt angry and distressed by the misinformation and confusion my apparently well-respected professor was seeding in the students around me. Sex and gender are not the same thing, and his construal of the two as such was not only confusing and false but had the potential to make many of his students feel invisible or unrepresented.

However, as I filled out my course evaluation for him, there was no place for me to check a box asserting whether I felt represented, safe, or supported by my professor. I had no room to quantify the feeling of my heart racing while I refused to take notes on information that excluded groups of people.

I also had no place to describe how, earlier in the quarter, this same professor made me feel stupid in front of my peers for asking a question that he considered too basic, and that his condescension made me never want to go to office hours or ask him questions again, which certainly got in the way of my learning.

I don’t need to ask around to know that there are plenty of other situations where students must feel like their identities aren’t being represented fairly in their courses — whether it’s because the books they’re reading are entirely written by white men, their professor made an insensitive joke, or a student felt targeted for their minority status.

Professors are humans, and humans are prejudiced, and they definitely won’t become better if they don’t know that their words and actions are eliciting these kinds of reactions from their students. And while sometimes we feel comfortable enough to raise this concern to their faces, it’s often the case that if a professor has already made us feel unsafe, an anonymous course evaluation is probably the best place for us to air those concerns.

Before anyone starts to whine about the destructive quality of “safe spaces” and calling my generation “too sensitive” or whatever new way people who lack empathy are now trying to justify their disregard for the impact of their actions, I’d like to point out that a teachers’ treatment of a student’s identity can objectively impact their learning.

For example, self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom have objective outcomes. In a study where researchers had students take a test, researchers randomly (as in, not based on their actual scores on tests) told their teacher that certain children were expected to experience an IQ jump as the year went on. In fact, these children did experience a significant boost in their IQ as compared to kids that weren’t described this way to their teachers. Because the teacher expected this from them, they gave them a different sort of treatment than children they expected less from. This effect is especially noticeable in black students or students who are lower in socioeconomic status.

This study is an extreme, and not as relevant for college-aged students or the structure of many classes at the university, but it’s a powerful example of how much instructors’ expectations can shape students’ performance. A student might not write in the “What aspects of this class detracted from your learning?” box provided on course evaluations about feeling like their professor had lower expectations of them due to their identity, but that might have definitely been a detractor in their ability to engage in the class.

I certainly believe that there are plenty of ways that feeling as though your experience or identity is being erased or misrepresented can get in the way of a students’ ability to engage in a classroom. But, learning aside, it’s also a measure of well-being that the UW should care about.

If your instructor makes you feel belittled or small in some way, even if it’s not identity-based, that’s a grievance you should have a place to air that isn’t just formally complaining. And, it should be something that’s publicly accessible — which, by the way, some measures of course evaluations are, as long as you have a UW NetID.

If course evaluations are essentially useless in measuring whether students have learned successfully or not, then they should at least ask for some feedback that people are usually pretty good at self-reporting: their feelings of acceptance, support, and inclusion.

Reach Co-Special Sections Editor Charlotte Houston at Twitter: @choustoo

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