May 6, 2010

Gimme That Feedback

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Earlier in the week, on the last day of class, one of my professors made an expected plea for students to fill out the class course evaluation form. Rather than simply request that students complete the designated online evaluation form provided by the ILR school, my professor took the liberty of distributing paper evaluation forms and allotting 15 minutes of class time for students to complete the evaluations. As he waited outside, what ensued inside the classroom was rather predictable and pathetic. Of those students who actually had the decency to fill out the course evaluation at all, most were finished within two minutes. As I finished the pre-set questions that were answered on a scale of 1-5 and approached the space to leave additional comments, I was one of a handful of students who had not yet turned in their evaluation. I came to the sad realization that it was unlikely many other students decided to leave any additional comments at all.

Quite ironically, when I receive a course evaluation to complete I am tempted to skip the part asking for bubbled responses and proceed immediately to the space for open-ended comments. While I am sure professors are interested in whether I found their course to be generally below average, average or above average, I doubt that such information has any use. Conversely, when a teacher requests detailed and original opinions regarding their teaching style, course structure or class as a whole, I view such an opportunity as a genuine chance to provide meaningful and constructive feedback. Why do so many students neglect such an opportunity and simply choose not to leave any additional comments? I suppose five minutes of actual thinking and reflection, not to mention putting that in writing, is a little much to ask of an Ivy League student.

The reasons I feel so passionately about completing written course evaluations, or at least the additional comment section, are interrelated and have little to do with being an overachiever or “brownnoser.” If it makes you feel better about your pitiful self by calling students who actually take the time to provide written comments such names, by all means, continue to deceive yourself. The first and most obvious reason I value written course evaluations is that they are a rather unique opportunity to provide anonymous and honest feedback on what was enjoyable, challenging or in need of change regarding a course. Do teachers always respond to such feedback and implement change? Probably not, especially when such comments are as well thought out as “this class assigns too much reading.” Nevertheless, there is little justification for complaining about a class if we are unwilling to at least express constructive dissatisfaction when given an opportunity. If you actually attended class and hold an opinion as a student, which, who knows, may also be a stretch, it is both pitiful and ignorant not to seize an opportunity to have any actual impact on expressing how you would like such a course taught in the future.

The second reason I adamantly advocate completing written course evaluations is a little more risqué: Call it respect. When a student completes a paper, only to later receive a grade without any actual comments or critiques, they are often enflamed, or at least I would be. Rightfully so, we expect that the work we do and are judged upon is given careful consideration and that we are provided some feedback describing its successes and shortcomings. This is exactly the mentality I believe all students ought to apply to teacher written evaluations. After dedicating time all semester to lecturing and grading assignments, shouldn’t we provide professors with feedback all the same? Especially when I am of the belief that my professor genuinely cares about their students and has committed extensive effort to improve their class, they are more than deserving of a few minutes of my time explaining how they can improve the job they are doing. If you believe a professor could care less about his/her students and did not expend nearly enough effort on their class, then why not spend a few moments making such an opinion clear while you have the chance.

A common criticism of written teacher evaluations is that they generate only extreme responses, those from students who thoroughly enjoyed or absolutely despised the class. Though likely accurate and warranted, I have no trouble with such a critique. Are our teachers and the course evaluations we use to asses them perfect? Certainly not. However, there should be no pity and no excuse for the lamentable student who chooses not to express his/her opinion when given the chance.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow