Offensive student evaluations ‘leave academics in fear’

Universities need to give staff more support about how to deal with negative comments, say researchers

May 31, 2019
Unhappy male student looking at laptop

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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Reader's comments (7)

Trolling by any other name.
Bad manners seem to flourish on social media. Students certainly need to receive some instruction about professional-level communications. Staff need to remember the mantra of the egoless programmer "You are not your code" - you might have written some rubbish code (we all do sometimes!) but that doesn't make you a rubbish person. Too many people feel that any criticism of one of their ideas is a criticism of them as a person... another bad attitude that social media seems to encourage, but it's always been there.
Student evaluations have become mainly worthless. All they tell us is that students are perpetually dissatisifed with having to work hard to attain understanding. The more the lecturer demands of them, and the more difficult or unpopular the subject, the worse the feedback will be. I have been teaching for many years, improving courses all the time, yet feedback is going downhill. It doesn't help that I teach a mathematical subject - they even complain about that.
Obviously student module feedback needs to be filtered for abusive comments before being handed over to the lecturer. There seems to be a failure of process here.
@m.robertson8_291084 These undergraduates know that they are engaging in uncivil and non-constructive behaviour: it is not a lack of knowledge but a lack of maturity for self-restraint that is the problem. I have seen social media platforms for undergraduates where the mature students basically tell the immature ones to 'Grow up and take responsibility for their behaviours' while the immature ones continue to throw hissy fits.
I would focus more on the skill set required to give and receive good constructive feedback. In my experience this is a massive gap in learning and development for both students and staff. And yet staff are expected to deliver high amounts of valuable feedback to their students and to other staff, whilst students are expected to understand how to receive large quantities of feedback and then give constructive feedback to their peers and the staff that deliver their student journey. Effective feedback going both ways is a life skill that needs to be continuously developed.
Simon8063 is right: "Obviously student module feedback needs to be filtered for abusive comments before being handed over to the lecturer." The study is of US universities; I gather there are some US universities in which students are informed that their module evaluations will be read first by an administrator, any irrelevant comments (e.g. comments essentially saying how much they liked or disliked the lecturer) will be screened out, and any abusive comments will lead to disciplinary proceedings. All universities should follow such a procedure. It is, unfortunately, necessary to prevent students from bullying staff. And a useful side-effect is that informing students about the procedure offers an opportunity to inform them more broadly about the purpose of feedback.