Why Requiring Evaluations is Unethical

Requiring evaluations and offering extra credit for them will ensure the evaluations get done, right? But it's unethical and skews the results! http://mathfour.com/?p=9789A student asked me yesterday, “Are you giving extra credit if we fill out the course evaluation?”

I was horrified.

Apparently some professors are doing this!

Requiring evaluations is unethical.

There are many reasons professors shouldn’t do this:

  1. It decreases anonymity
  2. It can skew survey results
  3. It’s a violation of student rights

To add to these (which I cover in detail below), professors must give credit for it. If they don’t give credit, they can’t enforce the “required” part.

Which adds a third problem:

  1. You’re skewing the students’ grades!

1. It decreases anonymity.

Suppose 3 students out of 20 decide to honor the requirement. They do the evaluation online and show the prof the “completed” form.

When the prof gets the results of the evaluation back, he has much better chance at “guessing” who wrote what.

And if only one student did it, he knows exactly what the single student wrote – thus destroying the student’s anonymity altogether!

It might be okay – if they never take a class from him again. But who’s to prevent him from telling other professors what they wrote?

2. Requiring evaluations can skew survey results.

These professors are externally motivating students to take a survey that will have no bearing on their future. So why should students answer honestly?

Students only need to print the page that shows “you’ve submitted the evaluation.” Who cares what answers they pick – they surely don’t!

Which means they’ll likely go down the left or right (or maybe middle) of the checkboxes and check them as fast as they can.

Which means the survey isn’t giving an accurate picture of how well (or poorly) the professor is teaching.

3. It’s is a violation of student rights.

Evaluating a course is a right, not a requirement. Just as the freedom of speech is a right.

But that doesn’t mean we try to force people into blogging, posting on Facebook and giving their opinion at cocktail parties!

People have the right to speak their mind – or to not say anything if they want.

Students have the right to evaluate their instructor – or to not evaluate him!

4. Requiring evaluations skews the students’ grades!

In order to “require” something – you must be prepared to reward (or punish) the behavior. Which means you give credit for it.

So these instructors are giving extra credit for completion of the evaluation.

Which means they are giving credit for non-course related activities!

In fact, it’s helping students pass when they have not learned the course content. One of my students asked me outright, “Could you wait until the semester’s over before you tell them to stop? I really need those points.”

How is this any different than allowing students to wash my car in exchange for extra credit in College Algebra?

It isn’t.

The road is paved with good intentions…

Back in the 1990s we posted grades next to Social Security numbers outside lecture halls. We naively thought, “They want their grades – this’ll give the grades as fast as possible.”

Our hearts were in the right place back then. But it didn’t make what we were doing right.

I’m sure professors that require evaluations (and offer extra credit for them) have their hearts in the right place.

But requiring evaluations is still not right.

Back to you…

What’d I miss? Do you do this? Will you stop?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

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One Response to Why Requiring Evaluations is Unethical

  1. A few things:

    What issue are you addressing? Offering extra credit or requiring evaluations? These are two separate issues. One gives students extra points over what he or she already has, and the other leaves the student with missing points had they not completed it. I’m going to assume extra credit since it was directly mentioned.

    1) It increases anonymity. Think about it. More responses equals more anonymity. If you aren’t encouraging evaluations, then you’re more likely to get fewer responses which makes it easier to decide who responded.

    2)It’s like many surveys that offer some incentive like a coupon, a free toy, etc. people will fill out just to get over with. From statistical experience though, people don’t want to be malicious in their responses generally (even in course evaluations) if they’re not of a strong opinion either way and will usually just select “undecided” or “neither agree/disagree” since they don’t want to skew results themselves. Indeed, this actually doesn’t skew results whatsoever and statistically, is totally acceptable. It doesn’t help us as instructors and is a bit of a waste of the incentive, but it’s not quite so harmful to the results as you write about here.

    3) A good point. But if it’s offered more in the context of extra credit it’s rewarding an optional activity, not necessarily forcing it.

    4) I disagree with this point. An easy way to avoid this is by giving a negligible amount of extra credit points to students for completing evaluations. This way it still promotes course evaluations but barely skews the grades (maybe just give a point or two, even a half point is game if the class is made up of a small amount of overall points).

    I’m also not sure that washing a car is a good analogue for course evaluation extra credit. Washing a car has no bearing on future classes or the way you teach/grade. But course evaluations certainly do. Think of it like current students helping out students in the future, paying it forward.

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