Notes on a University Student Questionnaire


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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37 Responses

  1. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    As a former associate professor (I never did get tenure, though), I was subject to many student evaluations. Not everybody took the exercise in good faith, but those of us who did found that they were not very valuable at improving one’s teaching. The ratings definitely suggested a spread between “happy” and “not happy”, but most of the more specific comments did not seem very useful to me in understanding how to improve.

    So, I’m sure, somebody decided to “improve” the questionaires, which were, as you imagine, mandated by some higher authority. Sometimes asking a more specific question is good. Thus the ‘stop and go’ format. But it’s also the case that that higher authority has trouble writing the question that works from the students point of view.

    I have no issue, though, with the power inversion. It’s good to be reminded that the instructorship is there to serve the student, even as they hold authority over them.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Yeah, I taught at a university for about five years and got them too. I had generally glowing reviews and found the few complaints helpful. But, we just had a form that said something like ‘What did you find most helpful?’ ‘What did you find most confusing?’ and gave a good amount of space to write. What I found amusing about this one was the language- it read like something dreamed up by an HR person at Dunder Mifflin.

      I’m sort of groping for a general thesis about the power inversion in this post, but my sense is the students have no actual power, but there’s a sort of maintained illusion that they do very similar to what gets called “experiential marketing” in business. This ties in with the talk about PC on campus because I think the power of students is fairly illusory there too. I think student power is used as far as it serves administrative purposes, but that’s about it.Report

      • Avatar Maribou in reply to Rufus F. says:

        Yes. Student “power” is a tool for senior administrators, not actual power, in most cases. I think that at the university where I seem to remember you working this is particularly true, although it’s far from rare.Report

  2. Avatar Stillwater says:

    “Found near a classroom garbage can: Contemporary education’s self-absorption as revealed by evals so derided by students they aren’t even worth throwing away correctly.”Report

  3. Avatar Damon says:

    I have no input as it relates to education. The last time I completed something like this was pre 92. I did, and do, often receive questionnaires or calls regarding a service that I’ve purchased, say a rental car. One person that called me asked for my “grade” on their service. When I gave them a C or 3 of 5 he was dejected and asked why and how could they have given me “outstanding” service. I responded with “I needed a car, you gave me one, checked me out and I was on my way in 15 minutes.” I got what I expected quickly and efficiently, but it wasn’t “outstanding”. How could it be? You might have gotten a better grade if you had surprised me with a free upgrade, but other than that, no. No one can seem to accept average nowadays. Sorry, but if your incentive comp is based upon outstanding, you damn well better figure out a way to deliver outstanding. So free upgrade to a BMW next time?Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Damon says:

      Also you don’t tip, right, because they showed up and put the food on the table without spilling it, which is what they’re supposed to do, so why get paid extra for that?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I detest tipping. It is degrading and objectifying.
        If you do your job, you deserve to get paid a decent wage, and if you don’t do your job, you deserve to get fired.

        I am well prepared to pay more overall in order to not be expected to tip.

        Besides, who really wants everyone hitting on your date?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I usually tip well. It’s become confusing in Ontario because the norm is now different rates for tips: 15% for good service and 20% for great service, which is something I don’t feel like judging. Plus I went to a place recently where the card swipe machine asked if I wanted to tip 18%, 20% or 25%, which is even more confusing. Basically, I’m glad to see more places going to the system of paying a better wage and asking customers not to tip because it’s already in the price of the food.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Actually, I tip very well. My gf keeps telling me I should only tip on the value of the meal, not including taxes. Pff. Shesh, it’s a few extra bucks. Hell, I even tip the carry out guys when I get it. Someone’s gotta assemble the carry out package.

        However, I’d be cool with never tipping again if it was factored into the cost of the meal and the service was decent. The problem you get is if it’s factored in and the service sucked…well.. watcha gonna do?Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Damon says:

      you were probably the lowest reviewer that month/week.
      And obviously your auto folks don’t know much about reviews, in general.
      I do know how to scam reviews in order to get attention drawn where I want it.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Damon says:

      Knowing how the results are going to be used, I tend to give the poor flunky in the trenches a break and treat the 1-5 scale as a 3-5 scale, with 1-2 reserved for actually defrauding me, putting a coke can with a bolt inside in the upholstery, or any contact with fecal matter.Report

  4. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    Dude, this “learning objectives” culture needs to die a quick death. It’s interesting as hell for me though, since I’d been out of school for eight years before going back.

    There was a discussion on my program’s Facebook page about this a while back. I wrote:

    “For what it’s worth, I looked into this a while ago. It seems that it’s all based on theories of “adult learning” that are all the rage nowadays: This style of education delivery seems to work for some people, but it has its problems: for example, it requires student familiarity with its own structure; it’s a bit too based on the notion that “adults” are merely information-absorbing automatons and incapable of grasping things intuitively for my liking; and it actively tries to limit information that is presented to what is strictly and objectively “relevant”, which is just plain silly. Personally (and for any fellow education nerds out there) I prefer the somewhat less-popular theories of Kieran Egan, which conceptualize education as a limitless process:… Here’s another document that shows where they’re coming from:… I do find the idea of limiting knowledge to what’s “relevant” both offensive and problematic, and there is of course the caveat that none of this is supported by empirical research; but there is a lot that is appealing about adult learning theory.”

    In short, I think they’re well-meaning but deeply, deeply misguided.Report

    • Avatar Aaron W in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      From my perspective as an instructor who teaches adult students, it’s also equally inane. On the “Learning Objectives” section of our syllabi, we fill in a numbered list of generic sounding things vaguely related to the course materials and then attach the numbers to various parts of the schedule simply because it’s required by the administration. Then, the instructors never look at it again, and students never even read them in the first place.Report

  5. This isn’t just academia. I’ve seen performance reviews in which I was ranked and had to rank other on whether the subject “supported corporate objectives”, and never had any fishing clue what that meant.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      four hours of training on “corporate values”… ayiyi.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      You got ranked? Lucky duck. We have to rank ourselves. 90% of it is corporate gibberish. I work at a desk, but apparently I have to rate my “safety”. (I write that I do my training?).

      And then rate myself according to our mission statement. And a bunch of other things.

      Out of like…10 criteria, 2 actually vaguely want to know “What did you do and did you do a good job” and a third is sorta asking “Did you, I dunno, learn anything new or become more skilled by any means other than another year of doing your job”?

      And of course after I rate myself, my manager then rates me. His numbers are used, of course. Why did I rate myself? Pretty sure so my manager can just rubber-stamp it after asking my project lead “Hey, he doing okay? Great” and not spend six weeks doing this for every employee he oversees.Report

      • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Morat20 says:

        My last company had a three step process:
        1) We rate ourselves (and, to be fair, our manager, although the latter is not as rigorous)
        2) Manager vets the ratings and we discuss cases where we differ
        3) All the numbers get adjusted to fit expected corporate parameters (i.e. the distribution has to look like a curve, no one gets an “excellent” unless they were actually promoted/commended)

        So basically, they spend quite a few (ostensibly non-billable) hours soliciting quality input, then reject our reality and substitute their own.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Morat20 says:

        I used to work at an oil company where I sat at a desk in an office building, but my group was eligible for the same kind of safety awards as the guys who, if they weren’t careful, could seriously blow shit up. We used to get gift certificates and stuff for “N days without a lost-time accident”.Report

    • Avatar El Muneco in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Same here, although my last company at least told us (on the appraisal form, not beforehand or at any time during the year itself) what the corporate objectives were.

      Since, in general, none of them were relevant to the development of the actual product we were selling – which is what I did – I felt comfortable giving myself high marks.Report

    • For a couple of years, the performance review where I worked included a section on specific tasks the employee was supposed to finish in the coming year, as well as a section on how they had done on the previous year’s list. I admit to a certain amount of uneasiness the year my supervisor filled that one out with something like: “Mike accomplished none of the specific assignments made in last year’s performance review. In February, we discovered an entirely different research project was critically important. Mike did a magnificent job on that assignment.”Report

    • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      In my experience, corporate objectives are generic-sounding platitudes that are numbered and repeated to employees like articles of faith. My wife’s company requires that every item on their performance appraisals be tied back to one of those corporate objective.

      Something like, “I saved the manufacturing line from a multi-million dollar disaster,” needs some sort of grounding in one of the Fundamental Truths instead of it being plainly obvious why it was a good thing to have done. Spell it out on the form or we won’t be sure you understand what your job is really about. It could only be more patronizing if they made us color the forms in with crayons.Report

      • “Mrs. Frog did not make a single sale based on completely misleading a customer on the nature of the product or its actual functionality or reliability. However, due to her other strengths, I recommend probation rather than immediate termination.”Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    What is the point of a university?

    If you see the primary point of a university as maintaining and growing an endowment, then this process of evaluation makes a lot more sense than if you see the primary point of a university as preparing people for employment.Report

    • Avatar Guy in reply to Jaybird says:

      It also seems reasonable if you accept the premise that the students reviewing the class have some idea what the class is supposed to be like.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Guy says:

        I do not know for how many classes that would be a reasonable premise.

        I know that there are a non-zero number of classes for which that would be an unreasonable premise. I don’t know whether those classes would be more or less likely to provide useless questionnaires.Report

        • Avatar Guy in reply to Jaybird says:

          Maybe it’s just my background, but I’m … suspicious … of a class where, between the course title, the department, the textbook(s), and the syllabus, the student still has no idea what the class is supposed to be about, or what they’re supposed to have learned at the end of it.

          A class should have a describable purpose; ideally one that can be summed up in a simple sentence or two comprehensible to students entering it.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Guy says:

            If’n we’re running with “should”, I’m down.

            The misunderstanding I was operating under was the “in practice” one.Report

            • Avatar Guy in reply to Jaybird says:

              I suppose assuming good classes is not necessarily a smart idea.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Guy says:

                Waaaay back in the 90’s, when I was merely engaged to Maribou and not yet married to her, we visited the Biodome in Montreal. A lovely little zoo. My favorite part was the zookeeper feeding the penguins who would periodically pick one of the greedier penguins up and throw them into the water.

                Anyway, on the way out, there was a guest book. In the guest book, people wrote their names, home cities, and comments.

                There was more than one comment from people who complained that the Biodome did not have any elephants. Came all this way to Montreal, went to the Biodome, and WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS THERE ARE PENGUINS BUT NO FREAKING ELEPHANTS WHAT A RIPOFF.

                Anyway, I am not confident that, at the end of the class, there would not be a noticeable number of students who would not act like “consumers who just finished consuming a product” rather than “students who just finished attempting to grapple with a subject”.

                But worse than that (above and beyond students checking off boxes in the “get a job from the upper middle class job place thingy” checklist, the administrations of the colleges/universities are, more and more, treating the students as if the folks at college are merely consumers consuming products rather than students attempting to grapple with mastery of a subject (or a technique of teaching oneself to teach oneself)… which creates a feedback loop that adds to the number of consumers checking off checkboxes.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

                The conclusion of the essay is a bright spot. The fact that there are still students who see this sort of consumer response to the administration as a waste of time is a good thing.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, I like elephants too. But part of the point of the zoo is to be delighted by the animals you see there and the zookeeper tossing a jackass penguin in the drink like that, so other penguins can get some food too, would have been a delight.

                What a delight if the zookeeper could have tossed a jackass human patron into the penguin pool too, so other people could enjoy the zoo without having to deal with complaints about no elephants.Report

    • Avatar Autolukos in reply to Jaybird says:

      I don’t think the purpose of the university is all that important here; I think agreement between students, teachers, and administrators on the purpose is important. The problem comes when half the students see the university as a diploma mill, a third see it as a great place to party, the rest see it as a place to learn, the administrators see it as a career path, the professors see it as a research base, and the grad students actually teaching the courses just want everyone else to show up on time and respond to emails.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Jaybird says:

      The primary purpose of a university is to charge you a lot of money for a piece of paper that tells people they can hire you.

      The secondary purpose of a university is teaching. For this, well-designed course evaluations can be useful. For example, a professor who gives genuine feedback on your work is better at helping you improve than a professor who just leaves a grade and a one-line comment.

      The tertiary purpose of a university is research.Report