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Someone I know has recently submitted a course evaluation form in which he complained about how poorly the unit was organized and that the lecturer didn't seem to be well prepared for the class. Following the day this course evaluation form was submitted, the lecturer decided to revise the mark he has received for his final project and marked him down. Is this an odd coincidence or are course evaluations not really confidential?

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    Short answer? No. But it's unlikely that this lecturer was retaliating. Evaluations take more than a day to process and it doesn't make sense to retaliate anyway. Dec 17, 2017 at 7:30
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    Actually, evaluations in many schools don't take any time to "process", because they are collected immediately by the lecturer himself or herself. So it is very reasonable that the lecturer reads them immediately after collection, and "retaliates", so to speak. The lesson is that evaluations should not be a place where students freely rant and humiliate the lecturer.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 17, 2017 at 12:00
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    @Dilworth the two universities I have experience with make a big deal out of not letting the lecturer see people writing the evaluations and don't get to see the hand-written ones. Students get the form during their exam, where the teacher is not present. When there is no central exam, somebody passes by during the last lecture and the lecturer leaves the room. But yes, I agree wholeheartedly with "evaluations should not be a place where students freely rant and humiliate the lecturer."
    – user25112
    Dec 17, 2017 at 12:32
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    What, anywhere in the world, in any university? Or perhaps you want to restrict this question somewhat?
    – user9646
    Dec 17, 2017 at 15:04
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    @Dilworth Do you actually have first-hand knowledge of a school which tells students that evaluations are confidential but then the instructor collects them? Dec 17, 2017 at 19:17

4 Answers 4

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Whether evaluations are anonymous (see StrongBad's answer for the difference with confidential, which evaluations are rarely) depends on your institution. On my university, they are. However, especially in small classes you can often get a pretty good idea of who wrote something depending on writing style and typical spelling mistakes.

But as Elizabeth Henning says in the comments, it's unlikely that this is the case here. It takes time before the evaluation is sent to the teacher. On my university, this happens only after all grades have been sent to the administration, after which it is possible to change them, but all those changes are logged - it may even be disallowed to mark someone down in that phase. In any case, the instructor won't care enough about the grade to change it and risk all kinds of trouble.

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There is a difference between anonymous and confidential. I have never heard that course evaluations are confidential and I have seen faculty share evaluations. As for being anonymous, I have never seen an evaluation with a space for a name or student number, and the online systems I am familiar with do not make that information available. That said, the feedback, and sometimes writing, often makes it seem like you know who wrote the evaluation.

While you may be able to identify students, many departments try and keep the evaluations sealed until after the grades. Even in departments in which you collect the forms directly from the students, everyone I have talked to recommended not looking at the evaluations until after the grades were submitted.

While there is no benefit for marking a student down for their evaulation, if a faculty member wished to do this, in some cases they could. It would not be unreasonable to go talk to the director of teaching about your perceptions.

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  • This. If I happen to, say, forget to do a certain class of assignments, then say that that class of assignments should be more heavily noted in class, it wouldn't take a genius to put two and two together, especially in small classes, no matter how anonymous the form itself is.
    – Nic
    Dec 18, 2017 at 0:44
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It really depends on your institution. Mine handled it pretty well: all evaluations had to be submitted electronically in a centralized system before the final exams to avoid retaliation from students, and were made available to the teachers after the final course grades were submitted to the registrar, to avoid retaliation by the teachers. We received printed results, where all numerical/rating answers were shown as total counts, and verbal answers were anonymized and put in random order. Except for answers citing specific personal interactions, it was impossible for me to make any inference about my students' responses. So at least where I worked, the evaluations were indeed as anonymous as it gets.

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The short answer is that most probably they are not strictly confidential nor anonymous. It is in many times easy to spot who wrote what.

Since evaluations in many schools don't take any time to "process", because they are collected immediately by the lecturer himself or herself, it is reasonable that the lecturer reads them immediately after collection, and "retaliates", so to speak.

I would suggest not to write long scathing and hostile rants about the lecturer then.

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    Are you in the US? Every US university I have been in (sample size of 5) requires that the lecturer is not in the room when the evaluations are administered, and does not handle them after they are filled out (a student brings them and drops them off to an admin). At my current university, I am not even allowed to handle the blank forms, someone else has to bring them. And they are processed and stripped of any identifying info before I see any data Dec 17, 2017 at 18:29
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    As I answered above, different universities have different standards, let alone different countries.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 17, 2017 at 18:50
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    The comment from @MorganRodgers agrees with how teaching evaluations used to be done in my university, except that I would distribute the blank forms myself and then leave the room while the students filled them out. Nowadays, the evaluations are done on the web, not in the classroom, and I have nothing to do with the process of filling them out or collecting them. In both systems, the evaluation results were made available to me only after I turned in grades. In the old system, I could sometimes identify students by their handwriting; not so any more. Dec 17, 2017 at 23:39
  • Of course, I understand the system is different in different universities. In my case I collect them myself.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 18, 2017 at 0:46
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    @AndreasBlass Interesting. I was about to ask about whether this was really still done on paper rather than online. Interestingly, where I am (Aarhus), they have recently started having the evaluation just before the course ends, including giving the lecturer access to the results, with the purpose of the lecturer spending 10-15 minutes discussing the results of the evaluation in class with a view towards what sort of changes might be made based on it. Dec 18, 2017 at 10:07

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