Persistent offensive comments in student evaluations are leaving academics feeling distressed and fearful, a study says.
Heather Carmack, associate professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Alabama, and Leah LeFebvre, assistant professor in the same department, surveyed academics across the US on their emotional responses to negative comments that they received in student evaluations.
“We found they don’t know how to make sense of them, we know we’re going to get them but we don't receive any training on how to deal with them,” Dr Carmack said. “There aren’t support structures in place to help faculty figure out how they can learn to improve their teaching from comments that are often hurtful, and sometimes racist and sexist.”
The authors initially asked participants to identify all the negative course evaluation comments that they received from students. “Around half were things such as ‘you are boring’ or ‘you are disorganised’ and you can learn from those things, but then there are some that are really offensive,” Dr Carmack said.
One respondent was told that “the class would be better if she took her top off”, while another was told the class had created a group chat where they constantly talked about how incompetent she was.
The 90 respondents listed 38.5 per cent of negative comments as initially leading to sadness, 28 per cent to anger, 23.7 per cent fear and 7.4 per cent surprise.
These led to feelings of self-doubt and “negative emotional spiralling”, the authors found. “It makes me question how I teach, whether I’m deserving of my job, and whether I will ever be able to avoid the negative comments,” one participant said, while another said they felt like they were “walking on eggshells” all the time.
This was particularly the case when course evaluations fed back into annual appraisals or promotion and tenure reviews, the study says.
The authors recommend that universities spend more time educating students on what course evaluations are for and how to provide constructive criticism. “But the next study should be: why do students feel that it’s OK to say such awful things?” Dr Carmack added.
She said that universities also need to offer more support to faculty, particularly younger members, about how to deal with negative comments. “Administrators need to have an honest conversation about them,” she said. “We say ‘brush them off’ but then we use them in their evaluation, [and] that’s a disconnect…It’s time for us to re-evaluate how we use evaluations.”
Print headline: Student evaluations ‘leave academics in fear’
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