Cyberbullying by students in course evaluations should not be tolerated

Abuse of anonymity is damaging for both academics and students. It should lead to serious consequences, says Stefan Cantore

March 5, 2020
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Those people who said cruel things in the press and on social media about the British reality TV host Caroline Flack, who killed herself last month, probably thought she was too famous and successful to be hurt by anything they could say. But while it is impossible for outsiders to say what prompted this desperate and sad act, it has been suggested by people who knew her that cyberbullying may have played a part.

Students who criticise their lecturers in course evaluation questionnaires probably have similar delusions about their seniors’ invulnerability. Indeed, it is a view that is not uncommon among academics themselves. This is no doubt why so little is done about it. But academics are not robots any more than celebrities are, and it is high time that, as a sector, we talk about this issue and take individual and collective action to ensure that our learning spaces are safe for all of us. 

If you have taught students for any period of time, research indicates that you are likely to have been on the receiving end of incivility and bullying, such as demeaning personal comments, pejorative labelling, sexual remarks, rumours or intimidation. Some of this manifests itself in the anonymous comments on module evaluation questionnaires – which, these days, are usually conducted online.

If this has happened to you, did you report an incident – and, if so, were you taken seriously? Do you feel confident that if you are “cyberbullied” in this way in the future, your managers and the institution will investigate and offer you appropriate support? Are you confident that your career won’t be affected? From speaking to colleagues, I suspect that the answer is no.

“Old school” professors seem to view bullying by students as a rite of passage for academics. It is something, apparently, that everyone has to expect to go through on their way to the professoriate. As one senior academic put it to me: “I’ve got a hard skin. It is just one of those things.”

In this type of climate, any academic who lodges a complaint against a student for bullying risks being viewed as not sufficiently “tough” for the job. That could be particularly problematic for early career researchers or others on short-term contracts.

This leaves staff feeling doubly vulnerable, having to live with both the impact of the bullying and the absence of any potential redress. From personal experience, I know it can make it even more difficult when, instead of investigating the incident, the institution views the staff member as the problem and offers them “mentoring on handling difficult feedback”.

But what are the consequences of students’ cyberbullying? They are many and some are long-lasting. There can be well-being and mental health implications. Victims may also lose confidence in their skills. Without support, academics’ sense of psychological safety in the workplace may be reduced, leading to risk-avoidance strategies. So instead of adopting a fresh pedagogical approach that has been shown to benefit learning, bullying victims might stick with approaches they see as safe and undemanding of students. Lack of redress can also lead to reduced organisational commitment and trust in academic managers to deliver on their much-touted well-being agendas.

For the cyberbullying student, there can also be a loss. Without any feedback on their conduct, they may well assume that it is quite acceptable in the modern workplace. A pattern of behaviour is potentially set and an opportunity to shape the modus operandi of our future leaders is lost. Cyberbullying can also be a manifestation of mental health and stress issues faced by the student; ignore their behaviour and we collectively ignore potential cries for help.

So what can be done about cyberbullying in course evaluation feedback? It is important that those of us working in higher education, in whatever role, make it clear to students that misusing the anonymity afforded by these systems is likely to lead to serious consequences. These should range from a warning through to their removal from their programme of study, with potential police involvement and longer-term consequences for careers.

I am not calling for a whole raft of new policies to be developed so much as the careful implementation of existing ones. When a student signs up for a programme of study, they sign a document confirming that they will abide by the institution’s regulations relating to appropriate behaviour. The regulations and their associated procedures clearly set out what these behaviours are and how breaches will be investigated and handled. So what is stopping institutions from following their own procedures? Comments welcome!

It will help change the existing culture if we start talking openly about cyberbullying of staff by students. For this to happen, academic and managerial leadership must make it clear, by their deeds as well as their words, that staff and student well-being is their top priority and that there will be zero tolerance of bullying in all its forms.

This is a big ask given the low starting point. But, together, we can enhance both the safety and the conduciveness to learning of the university environment that we all share, staff and students alike.

Stefan Cantore is a senior university teacher in organisation development and change management at the University of Sheffield.


Print headline: We should have zero tolerance for cyberbullying

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Reader's comments (5)

I agree with a lot of the content of this article, and Stefan has correctly pointed out that the policies to control this unacceptable behaviour are in place. I am worried that this article overlooks the possible root causes of this behaviour in students - such as anxiety, depression and perfectionism. I feel that these problems may be the forces that drive students to behave in unreasonable ways when things don not quite go 'to plan'.
I want to thank Stefan for his thoughtful insights. Unfortunately, it is not only academics who suffer bullying from students; often this bullying can come from "colleagues" not just in academia but in the “Professional” Services too. If there is a culture of bullying among senior staff toward junior staff when students see this being ignored "swept under the carpet" and rewarded with promotion; then this attitude will pervade the whole organisation to the detriment of society as a whole. We claim to live in a society that has “principles” but all I see are “priorities” based around the pursuit of profit at any price. The culture we live in glorifies the "successful" individual and when society builds people up they seem to have an overwhelming need to tear them down in pursuit of “healthy” competition. When it's "all about me" why should individuals care who they hurt in their scrabble to the “top of the pile"? Another questions that should be asked is; as educators of the elite who will set the future “standards” for society, what type of “pile” is society creating when these selfish, hurtful, behaviours are being ignored?
Students also bully and harass academics and even universities in other ways as well - the abuse of their anonymity using the NSS to punish the entire department/university based on their dissatisfaction with one or more academic. This dissatisfaction might be due to a bad grade received from an assignment or constructive negative feedback etc... There is little accountability for students in the NSS in which the NSS plays such a unwarranted and invalid indicator of teaching efficacy and quality and university ranking. The abuse of the NSS by students to arm twist academics and universities needs to be taken more seriously. I am sure many academics can attest to students approaching individual academics to make such threats (e.g., 'if the dept does not do this, I will give a really bad rating for NSS!').
Finding it hard to be sympathetic here, though the general point is right. Universities, staff and students alike, have for a long time made free thinking, and the genuine air of tolerance that should come with it, less and less viable. It's created the bullying, self-interest that now prevails. Short of stripping noisy SUs of power and funding, there's not much that can be done.