It already wasn’t the best day for Lindsay Waldrop.
Sitting in her bed on a late Friday afternoon, typing away at an email, a message popped into the Chapman professor’s inbox: her end-of-semester student evaluations.
Waldrop, at the time, was recovering from COVID-19. She was feeling gross.
She was about to feel a whole lot worse.
The evaluations for her introduction to exploratory data analysis class were the worst she’d received across her four years at Chapman. Numerical scores of student ratings were lower than she expected. One student wrote that whether or not she was helpful depended on her mood. In response to a question about course strengths, another wrote simply, “Nothing.”
“‘Oh, this is poopy,’” Waldrop recalled thinking. “The secondary feeling after being disappointed is, ‘Oh, crap. Now I have to explain this on my tenure and promotion.’”
Some Chapman University faculty like Waldrop are calling to uproot these end-of-semester course evaluations, citing research that demonstrates inherent bias in the student submissions and a lack of correlation between satisfaction and learning. Provost Norma Bouchard is well aware of the debate, but ultimately feels the evaluations are important for noticing problematic trends.
“If it’s the one-off, or a few comments – everybody’s got a bad day,” Bouchard said. “But if you see this is a recurring pattern, there has to be a conversation over class management.”
The evaluations ask students to answer Likert scale questions about the course’s effectiveness, and then open-response questions about its strengths and areas for improvement.
Students can often be blunt in those open responses, empowered by the cloaked hood of anonymity. But some professors like Caroline Wilson, an associate professor in the Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences, are able to find usefulness in the feedback.
After a class in spring 2020, most every student in the class told Wilson through the evaluations that the textbook was “horrible.”
“‘It gave me nightmares’ – that was the exact quote,” Wilson said. “I didn’t use the textbook the following year; I redid everything.”
Student responses on those questions are particularly important for tenure-track faculty. Those professors go through two “critical year reviews,” spaced two years apart, before officially applying for tenure in their sixth year.
Bouchard said evaluations would “of course” impact tenure-track faculty, and was important to the institution’s overall valuation of all professors.
Bad news if you’re getting comments from students that your class’s strengths were “nothing.”
“People will definitely look at them and be like, ‘Well, what was going on?’” Waldrop said of her own evaluations.
And what happens if you’re denied tenure?
“You’re done,” Waldrop said.
Lori Cox Han, a professor of political science in Chapman’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, has heard from other faculty that they have to do breathing exercises before they open their end-of-year evaluations. Or maybe gulp down a half-bottle of wine.
“I think, ‘Why are we doing something that’s causing that much anxiety for junior faculty?’” Cox Han said.
Faculty are encouraged, in a class period late in the term, to take 10 minutes to step out of their classrooms so students can fill out the surveys. But Cox Han refuses. It is her tiny hill to die on.
“I never encourage my students to do it, because I think they’re a waste of time,” she said matter-of-factly.
They aren’t a waste of time for students, however. Last semester, Kiana Favela had a professor who she said had hardly any structure to his class – no syllabus, no concrete due dates, no PowerPoints in lectures. She left a “strongly worded evaluation” at the end of the term, as she put it.
“As an empath,” Favela said, “I felt kind of bad for the guy.”
Favela feels the evaluations are a useful tool to “weed out bad professors,” as she put it. In a more constructive sense, Ishani Patel, a senior data analytics and economics double major, values the chance to leave feedback on a course.
“I really like to contribute — I like to provide feedback and give professors an idea of what they can improve on,” Patel said. “I think it’s important that students have that agency.”
Professors like Wilson appreciate that.
“You look and you see what they say, and you adapt to it,” Wilson said. “You have to adjust to what students are saying … the best instructors I’ve seen here have done that.”
But even with her desire to leave constructive feedback, Patel noticed she was inclined to leave a more significant comment if she enjoyed the class. There’s a certain bias present in evaluations that has to do with student satisfaction. Participation is voluntary, and leaving comments is not for the apathetic.
“I definitely notice that I give a lot more of a shit about it if I had a terrible professor,” said Brock Foose, a senior film production student.
The professors’ vendetta comes from a long line of research that asserts student evaluations contain such bias, across a variety of areas. Studies have proven that women faculty often receive lower ratings than men, and Cox Han and Waldrop said the penalty was even more severe for women of color.
“Women have the issue – if they teach a tough course, they grade hard, they have strict standards, then they’re ‘a bitch,’” Cox Han said. “I’ve seen those kinds of comments for faculty in other teaching evaluations.”
Waldrop pointed to that comment on her evaluations – her teaching depended on her mood – as something she felt a student wouldn’t say to a man.
In fact, Bouchard herself identified other areas of skew for evaluations: larger class sizes tended to receive lower scores, as did classes in quantitative subjects. Such was the case for Waldrop, who taught a required computer science class to Biology majors.
“It was a tough crowd to work with,” Waldrop said.
Waldrop had a hard semester, returning to campus after the pandemic. Everyone did. She understands that might’ve dragged down her scores. Her students, she said with a swelling voice, still demonstrated immense personal growth.
Yet in August, when her second critical year review rolls around, she’ll have to explain to the administration why that email she first received was so bleak this term. Waldrop thinks she can pull it off. But is there concern over her job?
“Oh, absolutely,” Waldrop said.
Luca Evans is a senior broadcast journalism major at Chapman University and co-editor of ChapBook Magazine for the spring 2022 semester. He enjoys sports, writing, sportswriting, and most of all annoying his co-editor.