Student evaluations and hazards in the classroom

So how will the students rate their professor when the class is over? U.S. Department of Education/Flickr, CC BY

Student evaluations and hazards in the classroom

In many European universities and specialised schools, professors are now being assessed by their students. While this has long been standard in the United States, many issues can arise.

To start with, it is not always comfortable to be assessed by one’s own students. It must be said that the concept is still perceived, in France at least, as being slightly weird. Why should students – expected to pass this or that module – be considered as sufficiently expert to assess their professor’s competencies in the topic? And are those students also experts in pedagogy?

It is interesting to observe that for the same professor and topic and within one year, the assessments will be totally different from one group of students to another – from “excellent” to “pointless”. And all we can do is scratch our heads: “I don’t understand,” we think. “They applauded at the end of the last class. I did not see this group was not ‘satisfied’”. (We shall come back to the notion of “satisfaction” later on.)

One or two students, not agreeing with the importance of a course, even if this course is within the core courses of a program, can manage to convince others that it is pointless, not useful, uninteresting… and even if not openly trying to convince others, they can ruin the whole atmosphere in class: doing something else, being loud about something that doesn’t have anything to do with the ongoing activities, mocking, blow rudely, sleeping, and of course connecting to Facebook and other network devices. The professor’s frustration then is: how could he/she say the course was not useful if they did not listen to any part of it, neither did they participate? Do they actually know what they are assessing?

Time is of the essence

Now speaking about logistics: at what time are the sessions scheduled? Late afternoon and they are tired from an early day. Early Friday morning and they are (quite!) tired from the party the night before. Friday before holidays and they would rather leave as they have chosen the least-expensive train ticket heading back home. Some moments of the day when they could, instead of being in class, be participating to the activities of an association (selling pancakes or doing a tour for ski event advertising). And still about logistics, which classroom do they have the chance or misfortune to be scheduled in? This one is too cold, this one too warm.

The moments in the students’ life have their importance. December, for example, is time for handing back their own study files, and for preparing exams. They might well stress if they have prioritised socialisation over attending actively their courses. They resent team work if some elements have been free riding. They have a heavy workload and guilt on their shoulders if they are last minute performers. Part time students/interns are struggling between courses and demands (sometimes constant) from their internship organisation. They might be homesick. For some coming from abroad, they still did not get over the cultural shock. Others are disappointed by a love affair which ended to their detriment.

About satisfaction now. It is sometimes complicated to ask for critical thinking – about assessing a course – when “critical” is mistaken for “looking for something to criticise”. And from a pedagogical point of view, should all courses be comfortable and enjoyable, fun and easy? What is the learning process if everything stays simple and enjoyable? Where is the learning if everything has to stay obvious and common sense? We are not talking about the quality of a sightseeing or adventurous tour; we fancy that they are learning something and that their degree is worthily specifying acquired competencies. It is frustrating, from a professor’s point of view, when they say that their learn more during their internships experiences. Of course those experiences are of upmost importance (Mintzberg, 2005), and learning is not something one gets once and for all. It gets reassuring when the professor receives a mail from an ex-student saying that he/she has been thinking about our module in a specific situation at work, or within an archaic corporate culture.

As for the subject matter…

This leads to the modules themselves. In research, like in graduating programs such as in a business school, we have always made a difference between “soft sciences” and “hard sciences”. This has a repercussion on how important a module is a priori perceived. Topics such as organisational behaviours are pre-perceived as being not pragmatic and as covering common sense issues which do not need spending so much time reflecting on them. Aren’t finance and accounting far more pragmatic? Aren’t soft sciences just addressed to individuals who have the weakness to think that people matters are important in the work environment? Because work and responsibilities are for the strong ones who are aware of the jungle law out there?! For such a mind-set, and because one’s certitudes are generally self-reinforced, it is complicated to accept that people minded thinking is also concerning efficacy, quality, collaboration, sustainability, strategy, change management efficacy, communication efficacy, stress management, motivation, talent management, customer and staff loyalty, ethics etc.

Thus, assessing that such a module is just useless and a total loss of time, is maybe simply a way (self-reinforcement again) to “justify” that one did not fancy attending the lectures, even if they were concerning a core course. How about assessing several courses in a few days, at the end of a semester? We expect that one gets fed up with these obligations and asks his/her neighbour for some ideas to write and fil in the file quicker. Yes subjectivity can fall all the way down to this.

What does the professor have to consider then? Be a good actor, give good marks in order not to be underestimated? Eventually be handsome (or pretty) helps… How about knowledge and challenging easy preconceived ideas and stereotypes? Guides as to take students comments as positive and constructive feedback do not take this into account, even if – of course – some give it some thoughtful thinking. Guides will advise not to feel hurt, to step back from emotions, be accompanied by a more expert peer, and reconsider oneself, as if students had all made their evaluation with mindfulness and seriousness.