We should screen student course evaluations: the best idea from ISA

ISA was full of great ideas in the teaching and learning space, as it usually is. I want to talk about the one that has prompted me to blog for the first time in too long. Short version: chairs or course coordinators should screen student course evaluations for harmful, vitriolic comments prior to passing them on to instructors. First, credit: this idea originates with Dr. Meg Guliford, Penn Provost Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a panelist on a roundtable for early career faculty to talk about their experiences as teachers. It was a fantastic panel set up by Michael Murphy of the University of Ottawa, and I’m using this platform to raise the signal on what I think is an important practice that should be standard at all institutions.

Dr. Guliford noted the harmful effects of reading vitriolic comments on student evaluations, particular for a professor that is BIPOC, a woman, LGBTQ+ or a member of another marginalized community. Imagine you are scrolling through stacks of evaluations after a class has ended, looking for constructive feedback that you can use to reflect on your teaching practice. Instead, you read the most unconstructive of comments–racist, sexist, hurtful language that is included under the veil of anonymous end of course evaluations. There is no value in an instructor reading such comments; the practice is strictly harmful to the morale and mental health of the instructor.

So why not screen them first? Student evaluations are not private–they are typically processed by someone who passes them on to instructors after course grades are posted. Often copies are given to departmental leadership to review the performance of faculty in the classroom, and they are referred to in decisions on tenure and promotion. Why not then, as part of the process, have a step where someone in leadership reviews the evaluations and simply removes any comments that are entirely unconstructive and hurtful? Of course negative comments that are constructive in nature (“I did not get any feedback on assignments; the professor showed up late constantly; the professor was unprepared or unclear”) should remain–I only advocate for removing the kind of comments that can are entirely meant to hurt. To use the famous phrase, ‘you know it when you see it’. If you don’t think that happens, or have never seen it–I’m happy for you, but ask that you don’t assume your experience is representative.

In my view, this practice should be standard at all institutions. Sure, it will require some extra time from departmental leadership, but I can think of few things that cost so little and yet could do so much. Big thanks to Dr. Guliford for raising this idea and I hope to see it adopted widely.