‘Too ugly to teach’: universities ‘must end’ anonymous evaluation

Continuing to offer anonymous surveys just invites abuse of lecturers, say Australian researchers

January 14, 2022
  Former AFL footballer Andrew Jarman is pelted with tomatoes by Carlton Football club supporters after losing a bet he had made in the pre season to illustrate ‘Too ugly to teach’: universities ‘must end’ anonymous evaluation
Source: Getty

Universities should overhaul the practice of allowing students to evaluate lecturers anonymously because it has led to widespread abuse, researchers behind an Australian study argue.

Richard Lakeman, the study’s lead author and an associate professor in the Faculty of Health at Southern Cross University, said a “radical” overhaul of evaluation processes was “overdue”.

He and his co-authors argue that anonymous surveys – which are common around the world and ubiquitous in Australian institutions – have become a platform to “harass, offend and, at times, menace” university instructors.


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“I don’t think anonymity serves the purpose it was intended to – to protect students from the wrath of potentially powerful academics,” Dr Lakeman said. “People should be accountable for what they say.”

He and his co-authors surveyed 791 Australian academics about their experiences with anonymous evaluations. The vast majority of respondents – more than 91 per cent – reported receiving non-constructive comments about their teaching, and “personally destructive, defamatory, abusive and hurtful comments” were common, according to the paper in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.

Comments spanned the gamut from general insults to targeted ones about instructors’ attire, their appearance and accent, claims against their character and threats.

They included remarks such as “too ugly to teach” and “I pity your wife and children”. Students called their lecturers names including “pathetic” and “senile”.

To add insult to injury, universities frequently recorded students’ numerical evaluations of instructors – which are used to gauge the quality of teaching and often shared with colleagues and supervisors – regardless of whether or not the scores were accompanied by abusive comments.

“The victim still needs to explain why they received a poor rating,” said Dr Lakeman.

While the team has yet to publish findings on the mental health impacts for lecturers, the feedback they have reviewed made it clear that these have been “very severe for some” teachers, said Dr Lakeman, who is also course coordinator of online postgraduate mental health programmes at SCU.

He acknowledged that there exist solutions to the issue that do not involve doing away with anonymous surveys altogether. For instance, institutions could use “technological fixes” to screen out responses with certain phrases. Some universities already redact offensive comments – but it is “unclear” whether they discount the numerical ratings tied to them, he said.

Nevertheless, Dr Lakeman was firm that universities should stop anonymous evaluations.

He urged the sector to come up with ways to “ensure that employees are safe and not exposed to hate speech, defamation and vilification in cycles of up to six times a year”.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (10)

Horrible to see this but there is a real danger that students will find a different outlet to vent their feelings and concerns if anonymous surveys are banned. Prior to their introduction students wrote anonymous letters to the student newspapers and now with RateMyTeacher and other social media it could actually go viral.
At my institution the feedback is presented anonymously to protect student's from staff 'revenge'. On the other hand, it is recorded who made the comments, so abuse can be tracked down and dealt with if necessary. I think this is a good balance of anonymity and accountability. I'm not sure why anyone thinks that overworked, professional adults who are already giving up evenings and weekends to do their normal workload will waste their precious time plotting childish revenge on students. We welcome good feedback, we want to know how we can improve! Of MUCH greater concern is that teaching staff are measured on things that are completely out of their control. Over 50% of our evaluation is related to back-end departments, buildings and IT issues and other measures that actually reflect on senior management failings. Our performance and progression is heavily influenced by the failings of SMT and the understaffed support teams. This follows the general trend of cutting costs and making sure the lecturers get the blame. So SMT reduce the support staff needed knowing full well that we will pick up the extra work, for free, in our own time because we are the only ones that actually care about the students!
More than 20 years ago we did an experiment at one of my former universities. We did the happy-happy ratings as usual but then took a stratified sample of the students. They redid the student survey but were also required to write a more detailed evaluation. This was not anonymous in the sense that the Associate Dean knew which students were picked to do it (hence, they also avoided the obscene language and childish rants). We did this mainly to provide an alternative to the anonymous ratings when putting together tenure/promotion cases. We found that doing this collapsed the distribution of the ratings. Those who were our supposed 'star' teachers actually dropped (mainly because of halo effects associated with their tendency to be 'friends' with many of the students and sometimes shallow in class activities that really were little more than entertainment). Those the students 'hated' saw their ratings not look so bad. The big winners were what I called the B+/A- lecturers -- they were very good at what they did, but p**s'd off a small number of students mainly because they were tough on excuses and gamers. The question is what happened in the long run? Nothing. Because running this alternative system was quite time consuming and expensive, it fell by the way side. Because teaching evaluations mattered to tenure, they went back to simply relying on the anonymous ratings even though they knew they were hugely faulty. So the problem isn't that the current approach is deeply flawed but what is the alternative. Just "doing away" with something is really not a solution because some sort of system is needed.
We (used to) filter comments in my department. If we judged them to be abusive we removed both the comment and the score, and made sure the students knew that was our policy. But I would also rather abolish these surveys altogether.
There is overwhelming empirical evidence that teaching survey scores do not measure quality of teaching. Is it too much to expect that universities of all places start taking decisions based on logic and evidence...
Anonymous student feedback should not be used as a sort of grievance procedure for students - universities have separate processes for these.
Rich67 has a point. Things out of the control of those teaching often influence the feedback. If students feedback on staff are perodically solicited and acted upon. We should also have periodic anonymous feedback of staff on management.
Some lecturers have to teach a curriculum they did not design. That is never taken into consideration either.
In my university we introduced an early module feedback, so students can vent complaints BEFORE end of the semester. Of course, some ignore it and they can still go and do their thing. I believe the venting must be related to the marks they get, though.
It is not difficult to get rid of "anonymous" student surveys - at my university, while the data are presented anonymously, individual responses can be tracked and offenders identified and suitably chastised... and the students know it. Of far greater difficulty however is preventing management, often innumerate, from misusing the data in futile (and lazy) ranking exercises rather than as valuable input to reflective practice.

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