There are a lot of possible answers to this question, and to most people they (rather rightly) start as cost. For most of my career, the real cost of higher eduction to students and their families has outstripped the rate of inflation by a substantial margin. We can argue about the reasons for that – declining public support and the costs of athletics and other noneducational amenities come to mind – but the ultimate result has been the rise of two trends. First, careerist thinking. It is not surprising that, given the financial pressures they face, students and their parents want tangible outcomes. And that leads to an unfortunate response on the part of colleges and universities – the idea of students as customers or consumers. But there is something else that has become the norm that, in my view, is at once both a consequence of, and more insidious than, these trends. That is the unsigned student evaluation of teaching.

Wait a minute, you say. Shouldn’t students have the right to critique their professors? After all, it is absolutely true that there are bad ones out there, and that failure to learn can often be the result of failure to teach. So no doubt – student input has merit in evaluation of teaching. But let me scream the critical word – UNSIGNED. No university to my knowledge requires that student evaluations of teaching be signed. At the same time, of course, no graduate or professional school will accept a faculty evaluation of a student that is not signed. So, when I write a letter that can affect the professional future of a student, I have to put my personal credibility on the line (which I am more than willing to do so). Conversely, students can, to be blunt, be no more thoughtful than internet trolls, and in so doing have major effects, often negative, on the professional futures of faculty. There’s a disconnect here – why has it gone largely uncommented?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a couple of suggestions. First, it is absolutely true that, prior to the mid-60’s, students had no voice in the functioning of universities and colleges, and when the absurdity of that situation became evident, giving opportunity for students to evaluate their professors seemed like at least a partial fix. But why not signed evaluations? Here the argument is usually that, given the power relationship between faculty and students, anonymity protects the latter from retaliation. And then second, as costs increased and pressures grew to justify them, administrators found evaluations to be a convenient way of (insincerely I think) showing their concern for student input.

Regardless of all of the intricacies of how the process has developed, there is absolutely no evidence of which I’m aware that says that anonymous student evaluations, as collected and aggregated, have done one whit to improve teaching or learning. Rather, they have led to the professor as salesman (especially at lower tier institutions), putting no performances that make students comfortable and assigning grades that generate satisfaction (I’d love to have the data, but my strong prediction is that there is a high correlation between the level of a student evaluation in a course and her or his expectation with respect to final grade.

So what do we do? Student evaluations of teaching aren’t going away. So in a Swiftian sense, I will make some modest proposals:

  1. Student evaluations of teaching instruments must be designed carefully. I’m not an expert in survey design, but I would suggest that Likert scale responses to “The professor knows his field” are NOT appropriate. It is the role of the faculty to judge expertise, not the student.

  2. Evaluation must be mandatory. All students must submit a complete evaluation if they expect to get a grade in the class. That grade will be the one assigned by the professor in the absence of knowledge about the nature of evaluations.

  3. Here’s the key one ( I bet you can’t guess) – evaluations must be signed. The faculty member should not see the signature, however the department chair and dean should. That way, the student will know that she or he must be accountable for what she writes, but that her identity will not be known to the subject of her critique. In other words, a system parallel to that used by professional and graduate schools in evaluating candiates.

SO – carefully designed instruments and mandatory signed response. Students are moving into a world where personal responsibility matters more than ever – I’m putting these suggestions forward as ways that we can help them in that process and at the same time get more informed and objective student evaluation of teaching that can guide us in our quest to improve teaching and learning.