Student evaluations: Room for improvement

ANDREW HEPPEARD, Opinion Columnist

It is student evaluation season yet again, and office assistants are handing out bubble sheets and no. 2 pencils. So, what are evaluations, and why do we have them?

The “what” is easy, but the “why” is not always as explicit.

In October, the Northern Iowan ran an article by Dennis Clayson, a professor in our college of business, on his thoughts about these evaluations.

At first, I was directly and staunchly opposed to the message in this article, but then I did what I always do when I have such a strong reaction to an opinion not in line with my own. I ask myself why I don’t like it, and if it is reasonable to have that opinion.

I started asking around, and it turns out many students and faculty alike believe that there needs to be change, and for good reason.

Think about your time on the internet. Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter – social media is flooded with anonymity, and all the scathing, snarky, uninformed and unashamed comments hurled at one group or another which comes with it. Student evaluations are no different, and one only needs to visit Rate My Professor to see that.

While many students would like to believe that the comments in class are different than the ones online, there is little to no difference. It is for this reason that I will not be addressing the ridiculous idea of making student evaluations public. Rate My Prof. is bad enough, and I believe UNI is better than that.

Not all the remarks are meant to be bad, but come off as such. Many female professors receive written remarks on how they look or dress rather than their academic merit within the classroom.

When first hearing this, I was shocked, but then realized that I have done this as well, and I would like to apologize to all my professors if my comments in my evaluations were insulting in such a way, or were not helpful in improving the courses for future students.

That is what I think these evaluations are for, because that is what I had always been told they were for. I had been told that they do not impact promotions or raises of professors “as much as people think they do,” but we are told before taking them that they in fact do impact these things.

This semester, for the first time ever at UNI, I had read to me a notice that is apparently is supposed to come before every evaluation session. It clearly states that promotions and such take these evaluations into account.

What I propose then, is similar to what Clayson had in October. The three questions proposed in his article were:

1) What went well in this class?

2) What could have been done better?

3) What is your name?

While I now fully agree with these questions, there is still one concern with having a student’s name on the evaluation sheet – the fear of retaliation for a bad evaluation.

Now, I personally have faith in all our professors at UNI – despite stories which seem to pour out of one college in particular – and I believe that this should not be an issue on the minds of students. But faith only gets you so far, and I do not know all our faculty personally.

For LAC courses, you may never see a professor again, and therefore the professor may never have this chance, but for major or minor courses, many students have a continual cycle of professors. Though students may have their favorites which they can aim for with many major courses, there are always those specialty sections with that one professor you never wanted to take again.

What I would propose is that the evaluations are held. Though this would slow down the implementation of any suggestions to improve courses while the evaluating class is present, they have already taken said courses, and so any possible benefit is passed to future students already.

A fourth question for the test would be, “What is your expected graduation date?” By holding these evaluations for one year passed the expected date, the evaluations can still have a positive impact on this campus while protecting students.

These evaluations can be beneficial to campus, but anonymity emboldens people who are simply looking to hurt – either for some sick joke, or to retaliate for not doing well. If we couldn’t hide behind anonymity, these evaluations might actually be able to more effectively produce positive change to the classroom.

This does not fix all the problems with student evaluations, but it would certainly help administrators more than the current system. Here at UNI, we should not be factionalizing students and faculty, but instead we should come together in order to make UNI something better than the sum of its parts.