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It's common for students to be asked for their evaluations of a teacher/course at the end of the semester. Is it safe for the student to give negative feedback? After all, even if the lecturer will not see these evaluations until after the grading is completed, it's possible the student will want to work under the lecturer in the future as a research student, or take another course by the same lecturer.

In my experience, back when I was a student, nothing negative actually happened to me when I did this. The closest was an incident at the university housing, when I sent negative feedback about the catering. The warden came to my room threatening to expel me unless I apologized. I refused to send any more feedback when they asked for it at the end of my program.

However, this question (and answers) is making me wonder if I got lucky. Did I? How common is it for the student to suffer negative consequences for giving negative feedback?

Edit: about anonymity, I recall giving handwritten feedback, which is not likely to be truly anonymous since one can compare the handwriting vs. assignments. One university had an online evaluation form, but it warned respondents that the names would be revealed to the lecturer (although it also said it will only be done when the grading was completed). Truly anonymous online feedback forms seems pretty courageous because of the online disinhibition effect, I can easily see things like this happening.

closed as off-topic by Solar Mike, Brian Borchers, Enthusiastic Engineer, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, Richard Erickson Sep 4 at 1:04

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  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – Brian Borchers, Enthusiastic Engineer, Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩, Richard Erickson
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    yes, no, maybe... is it anonymous? are they told it is anonymous but isn't... – Solar Mike Sep 2 at 6:32
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    That experience with the warden after criticizing the catering. When word is out that the feedback is not anonymous then people will refuse to provide feedback – Poidah Sep 2 at 12:10
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    In the linked question the student signed their name and therefore intentionally gave up their anonymity. Also the OP seemed most concerned about what to do as far as their own career rather than wanting to retaliate or cause anything negative for the student. – Bryan Krause Sep 2 at 14:03
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    There is a big difference between negative feedback and constructive criticism. – StrongBad Sep 2 at 14:30
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    What is meant by "university accommodation" or a "warden"? I'm not familiar with the usage here (U.S. academic). – Daniel R. Collins Sep 2 at 17:07
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I feel there are two different layers to that - whether, and to what extent, teaching evaluations are actually anonymous, and if they aren't, whether it's still "safe" to give a bad one.

Are evaluations anonymous?

On a superficial level, all universities that I have taught at had entirely anonymous evaluations. At no point in the process was I ever told which student gave which feedback. However, in a small class (say 10 students or less), anonymous evaluations aren't really all that anonymous - in such classes, I often have at least an educated guess which student wrote which evaluation. In a larger class I usually have no idea which student wrote which comment - there are usually groups of students with similar concerns and troubles, and I also don't know individual students nearly well enough at the end of a 100-students class to divine which student may have written what.

Yet, even in large classes sometimes a teacher may have a hunch which student wrote a specific comment, if the raised concern or the way of expression is sufficiently unique. For instance, in one of my introductory classes last year, one student was struggling extraordinarily and it was clear that he was working all the time on this course to pass (which he ultimately did). When evaluations came in and one student remarked on the almost unsurmountable workload it's easy to at least suspect that this was this student.

In short, relying on anonymity alone may be a dangerous game. If I were giving some really negative feedback I would try to keep it general enough that at least a handful of students could have written the same comment.

Is it safe to give a negative evaluation (assuming it's not, or at least not completely, anonymous)?

Clearly, teachers are supposed not to retaliate upon receiving a bad evaluation, and I expect the large majority of teachers in a reputable university will not. However, professors also being humans, a subconscious bias may still taint further interactions. I guess it depends on what you mean with "safe" - there is no 100% certainty that a negative evaluation will not backfire on you, but by and large I can tell you that many students give negative evaluations in all schools I have been at, and as far as I can tell nothing bad really happens to them.

Anything else?

It's not really your question, but in my experience it is almost universally a good idea to try hard to phrase negative evaluations in the same way as you would also do when giving feedback face-to-face (that is to say: fair, polite, without unnecessary superlatives, and if possible strengthened by data). Ultimately you probably want your feedback to be heard / integrated into the next course iteration, and the less a teacher is annoyed by your comments, the larger the chance that they will actually consider them. If you want to use evaluations to vent, this is certainly your right - but you should be aware that your evaluation will then have virtually no impact on the course design.

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    When I was an undergrad, I knew a TA for one of my classes pretty well outside class. I wrote an eval where without thinking I used a nickname for the TA that he used in the department but hadn't remembered he hadn't used with the students. I was the second to last alphabetically in the class, and the TA noticed that the eval using his nickname was second to last. Based on some other info, he quickly determined that the online eval system was actually giving him "anonymous" evals but listed in alphabetical order. He did report this, and I hope they fixed it, but never confirmed. – JoshuaZ Sep 2 at 12:04
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    @Allure On the other hand, a solid argument for anonymous feedback is to avoid (possibly unconscious) bias against the student in future interactions with the teacher. People in academia often have a huge inflated ego, so one may want to avoid getting into conflicts with them. – lighthouse keeper Sep 2 at 13:03
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    @Allure It's a trade-off, of course. In practice feedback seems to be anonymous virtually everywhere (at least I have never heard it being done differently). – xLeitix Sep 2 at 13:15
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    Nothing much to add here, except that sometimes an anonymous evaluation can be quite amusing. My favorite was the one where the student stated “It is unfair of Prof. (me) to examine us on material presented in class, because it encourages both attendance and note taking.” Guilty as charged! – Ed V Sep 2 at 14:30
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    At my university, individual evaluations weren't released to professors until the following semester. They would get aggregate results immediately, but the ability to view each response (as well as any written responses) were restricted long enough to prevent any claims of retribution. Of course, this might not help in cases where a professor teaches multiple courses at different levels, but it certainly helps discourage such behavior and (more importantly) it provides students a sense of security. – Brian R Sep 2 at 14:50
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There is no straightforward answer to this, since it varies enormously by institution.

Anonymous feedback can still be unmasked

As others have said already, an ostensibly anonymous survey may not end up being so anonymous in practice; it is pretty easy to guess someone's identity, especially if the class is small or if you have interacted with the lecturer on a one-to-one basis.

So, avoid ad hominem attacks -- be specific about the problem, and avoid assigning blame

Nonetheless, you can and should make negative comments where they are warranted. Ensure your comments are detailed (as a tutor and lecturer, there is nothing more irritating than getting a negative evaluation without any explanation of why) and constructive. Try not to assign blame to a specific person unless you are absolutely sure it is his/her fault. Do not make ad hominem attacks, but focus on the issues in an impersonal manner. Examples may include:

  • "I had difficulty keeping up with the pace of the lectures";
  • "not enough opportunities to discuss the assignment";
  • "course content was too superficial, and failed to analyse issues in sufficient depth, meaning that I felt unprepared for the demands of the assignment";
  • "the selection of case studies across the lectures seemed incoherent -- the lecturer did not make clear how they were connected to the topic";
  • "the lecturer spent most of the time regurgitating feminist readings uncritically, and refused to engage with questions from students who disagreed";
  • "AV facilities were so unreliable that a lot of time was wasted getting the video and sound clips to work".

Negative comments can be useful in enabling the lecturer to make a case to higher authorities for more time/resources

In many cases, a lecturer may not have that much control over the course he/she teaches, or may be forced to make compromises on content/resources/hours/&c. As a result, a reasoned negative comment may, in fact, be very useful in that it helps the lecturer decide how to prioritise in future (e.g.: should he/she give more contact hours in larger classes or less hours but in smaller groups?). It also provides ammunition for the lecturer to make a case to higher authorities for more resources -- here are some examples of hypothetical things a lecturer might say to the head of department with your help:

  • "I think eight lectures is not enough time to get through the syllabus -- in last year's evaluations, lots of students said they had trouble understanding the material and felt that the lectures were too fast.";

  • "My remit is to critically examine feminist, Marxist, and nihilist readings of late-nineteenth-century Russian literature. However, this is impossible to achieve in the three one-hour lectures I am allotted, so I tried to discuss one approach in more depth, in the hope that this would encourage students to explore the other two in the same way. Unfortunately, as the student evaluations make clear, this strategy did not work: many students felt short-changed because I spent only half a lecture on Marxism and the other half on nihilism, and complained that my two lectures on feminism amounted to propaganda.";

  • "The situation with room bookings was a complete shambles last semester. There were too many last-minute room changes, which turned my classes into cross-campus games of tag. Several students said that they missed lectures because they could not find the correct room. I also had several more evaluations complaining about the disruption of so many people turning up late.";

  • "Since we lost our dedicated AV technician in last year's restructure, I have found it very difficult to get the technology to work reliably in my lectures. As you can see from the student evaluations, they were frustrated by the amount of time wasted getting the sound system to work.";

  • "Since the number of teaching assistants on the course was cut from three to one, student satisfaction has dipped considerably. Before this cut, almost everyone was satisfied with the availability of feedback on their work. This year, a lot of students complained about a shortage of office hours and lack of individual feedback. I realise that having more teaching assistants is expensive, but the student feedback shows we need them.";

  • "I am finding it very difficult to teach according to the textbook prescribed by the department for this course -- the textbook covers only about half the necessary material. I have spent countless office hours going over misconceptions from the textbook, and many of the student evaluations say that the textbook does not explain things clearly and assumes a lot of prior knowledge that they do not have.";
  • "I have strong qualms about teaching the course on theatre in ancient Greece again. As you know, this is not my area of expertise by any stretch, and, as last year's student evaluations show, my lack of expertise was painfully evident.".
  • It does not matter if the anonymity can be unmasked or not, this advice is great in any case. The constructive form of feedback suggested here by @anon is excellent regardless of the circumstances. – Therkel Sep 3 at 7:09
  • Negative comments can be useful in enabling the lecturer to make a case to higher authorities for more time/resources - This is an interesting possibility, but have you seen it frequently in practice? I'm not aware of student feedback being used this way in my department. – Kimball Sep 3 at 9:55
  • @Kimball - we use feedback in the way all the time. Whether the powers that be find it convincing is another matter... – Ian Sudbery Sep 3 at 14:25
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I will only supplement the great answer of xLetix here.

Let me note that the more radical and extreme your statements in an evaluation the less likely it will be that it is acted upon. If you have serious, negative, things to say, then another venue will probably be more effective, though it is unlikely to be anonymous.

I think that extreme comments are easy to ignore, both by the faculty member and by the institution. However, if a number of students say things that are similar, then they will be taken note of. They don't need to be very negative to be effective and to initiate change. "I wish the instructor had assigned more/fewer exercises", if said by three or four students is better than one person saying something over the top.

My experience with (anonymous) evaluations was that they were helpful, but mostly confirmed things I already knew. There were few surprises. The extreme ones might come from those who were malcontented generally, or who didn't want to put in the effort to learn and believed I could make their learning "automatic" in some way.

But sometimes we slip up in a course and it is noticed and commented on. If stated properly, then it can generate self reflection that helps us improve.

I've also had experience with public evaluations, though still anonymous (via an anonymous wiki or rate my professor). With such a system anyone can say publicly whatever they want and if it is unsupported by the other students they will be likely to say so. I never found it necessary to reply to attacks or to defend myself, since it was clear that the complaint was an outlier. But if other students agree, then you have some work to do.

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It is very unlikely that you will suffer negative consequences from it and there are no real avenues to retaliate against you. At best, the wronged instructor may try to do something like spread rumors against you, but honestly, with how busy everyone is, do you really think anyone has the time?

Extremely petty and irrational people may try to retaliate anyway. But these by their nature are unpredictable. They may decide to hold a grudge against you because you only rated them good not excellent. They may may be mad that you came to class 1 min late that one time. They may hate your handwriting. There's no point trying to understand the minds of madmen.

I think the tone of the feedback is more important. Negative feedback is okay in the sense of pointing out specific shortcomings and suggesting ways to improve them. Even extremely negative feedback ("this course utterly fails to teach anything at all") can be completely acceptable if phrased in a constructive way ("effectiveness of teaching would improve if the instructor did X"). You have to be giving the feedback not as a rant or personal derision of the instructor(s), but as a neutral observer concerned with pertinent factual aspects of your experience and improving the course. If you follow this principle, I don't think it really matters whether your feedback is negative or positive. What matters is that it is actionable, specific and constructive.

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I've been teaching mathematics for +25 at all levels from high school to PhD. Feedbacks are a good thing, but useful feedbacks are rare.

As to the original question -- I am sorry to read that there are fears of retaliation. This obviously depends of your environment.

  1. Meet the teacher in person, or a colleague of his.

  2. If not possible, send him an email.

  3. If not possible, come to a pedagogical session.

  4. If not possible, talk to a student representative or others students attending the course. Pay attention to what he says and how he himself reacts.

If not, while providing written (especially) negative feedback:

  1. Be careful about who will read it and where it will be posted.

  2. Stick the issue and state it clearly.

  3. Keep it as local as possible and try to sound "solutional" rather than "confrontational" . Do not use it as a forum or general rant.

  4. Do not use ad hominem attacks.

  5. Be honest. The aim of a lecture at the university is to... teach something. It is harder than one may think.

  6. Be honest with yourself. (Some basic questions include: Have you attended the lectures ? Have you worked out the assignments ?)

One last (unsolicited) advice: keep in mind where you want to put your energy in. A good teacher is a good teacher and a good student is a good student.

Conclusion: with a minimum of "savoir-vivre" and honesty, it is unlikely that you'll suffer "bad" consequences from a negative feedback.

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In addition to the other great answers, let me add:

Use common sense.

When you had a course with a professor over a whole semester, you can often evaluate the professor's aptitude regarding teaching. I had professors who openly told stories in which they behaved unethically towards students -- other professors openly told that they changed their courses because of student's comments, and other openly told that they do not care about teaching at all and do exactly the same course since 20 years. This information (and similar information which you pick up "between the lines") may sometimes help to evaluate if you have to fear for retaliation. In every case, however, write your comments professionally. See the answers above for more detail.

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