How do you rate your professor?
Whether this is a cover for personal vindictiveness, a useful sharing of information or just a bit of fun, I’m not entirely sure (though I must say I veer towards the vindictiveness line, occasionally lightened by a fan club element). It is, however, an all too predictable offshoot of “questionnaire culture” and “feedback society”,
Let me say at this point that I very much want to know what students think of my lectures and supervisions. And I have various ways of finding out. At Cambridge, where most lectures are optional, the bottom line is whether they are still coming at the end of term. But other good fact-finding methods are (surprise, surprise) asking them, or asking your colleagues tactfully to ask their own students. Sometimes an anonymous questionnaire helps too.
But our students tend to suffer from questionnaire fatigue (one for each lecture course, one rating, one rating the whole of their lectures per term, one rating their college teaching . . . ). So, even if you hand them out at the beginning of a lecture, and collect them before you leave the room, many of the responses are pretty perfunctory. If you opt, as my Faculty sometimes does, for an online version, you will be lucky to get a 20% response rate unless you offer a bribe. But it’s hard to give a random bottle of champagne if you also want the responses to be anonymous.
The bigger problem, though, is how to use the responses you get responsibly.
First, what do you expect from a set of questionnaires on your lectures? Not, I hope, that they should be universally favourable. Any lecturer who is doing something really innovative is bound to annoy some of the audience. It isn’t comfortable to be encouraged to think differently about something (whether it’s Virgil or particle physics)…so some of the most mind-changing lectures are going to get some unfavourable reactions (“what’s all this got to do with the exam..?”).
Second, there’s the time frame problem. What student view do you value most? The view they have while the lectures are going on (when most questionnaires are given out)? Or the view they have at the end of the year when they come to the exams? Or maybe what they think in a few years time, when they are looking back and wondering where they learnt most. This, of course, is the classic issue in the evaluation of education. Is it the number of first class degrees you are counting? Or the number of people who thirty years on have made a difference to the world?
I have three particular tactics which help a little bit here.
Number One: I try not always to hand out tick box questionnaires. Sometimes I just pass round blank pieces of paper to the audience and get them to write what they have liked or not liked about the lectures and what they would have done differently. That can get really thoughtful responses.
Number Two: When I do give out more traditional questionnaires, I try to include questions that encourage the students to reflect on the fact that their own input might have something to do with their enjoyment of/ profit from the course. “How many lectures have you missed?” “How often have you done the recommended reading before the lecture?” “Have you been to the University Library to follow up any reading from this course?” etc
Number Three: I try to give the students a digest of their responses at the very next lecture after I have distributed the questionnaire. I think it is good medicine for those who have ticked “Too difficult” in answer to the question “Was the level too easy, too difficult or about right?” to realise that they were in a small minority (and it’s even better medicine for the cocky bastards who ticked ‘Too easy” to realise that most people weren’t so under-stimulated).
It’s also fun reading out (anonymously) to the audience the usual clutch of minority sexist views .. “Why can’t Professor Beard be better dressed?” I like to think that, after I have discoursed for a couple of minutes on what I think of people who value my wardrobe over my words, they won’t make that mistake again.