The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

The Case of the Consecutive Course Questionnaires

What would you do to you deal with potential hits to your “teaching ego”?

If you follow my blog regularly (You know who you are—both of you....), you know that I like to present readers with cases to ponder.  You did so well on a previous case about course evaluations, here’s another one that you might find interesting:

Your role

You are a professor in a mid-sized department in a mid-sized university in a mid-sized state.  You teach two very small graduate courses as part of your duties, and these courses are in two consecutive semesters—one in the spring and one during “Maymester,” which is an intense three-week semester tucked in between spring and summer.  The second course, in fact, starts only days after the previous one ends.  All of your spring students will be in your Maymester course.

Some background

Your institution, like most universities, evaluates teaching by administering “course questionnaires” to students near the end of the semester.  These questionnaires ask students to rate and give feedback about various aspects of the course, including the professor.  And, like most universities, yours tries to avoid bias in a number of ways.  For example, you are not allowed to be in the classroom when students complete the questionnaires.  You don’t get your students’ feedback until after the course is over—so that the evaluations won’t influence the grades you give.  And because the courses you teach are small, the department secretary types up all the students’ comments so you can’t recognize individual students’ handwriting.

The dilemma

You have administered your spring course questionnaires and will receive the results in about two weeks—before the end of the Maymester course. The decision you need to make is this:  Should you read the course evaluations from your spring course before the end of the Maymester course?

Some deliberations

Lots of research in psychology shows that people react more strongly to infrequent negative feedback than to frequent positive feedback. Might you have a strong reaction if some of the feedback you get is even a little negative? Might you be tempted to retaliate in some subtle, even unconscious, ways?  (For example, you might find yourself less responsive to students’ questions, or a little hesitant to meet with them.) 

On the other hand, if you read and respond to the feedback during Maymester you can improve your teaching, show respect for your students, and might even improve your next round of evaluations! Another reason to read the results:  You’re meeting with your chairperson in a few days to discuss tenure, promotion, reappointment, and/or your next pay raise.

You really don’t know what the questionnaire results will be.  You feel that your spring class went very well, and you generally get positive and useful feedback (with the occasional disgruntled student complaint).  On the other hand, all the students in your spring class were very quiet, so you don’t really know how they felt about it. You even have a hunch that one or two students may not like you (for no good reason, of course) and may take it out on the questionnaires.

The decision

You go back and forth:  Maybe you could just look at the summary numbers and not the specific comments.  But in a small class just one disgruntled student can bring down the average (As a professor, I often wonder how I can re-gruntle students…)  What choice would spare you the most emotional grief?  What choice would make you happiest?  What choice gives you the most likelihood of helping your students, and the least likelihood of harming them?

What other things go through your mind as you deliberate?

What would your decision be?  

The end

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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