I have a case for you; it has to do with student course evaluations. OK, so today’s discussion won’t be earth-shattering: No sex. No drugs. No partisan bickering. But it’s a good way to flex your ethics muscles.   

It’s very common practice for colleges to evaluate instructors by having students fill out questionnaires at the end of each course. Students rate their professors (Ratemyprofessors.com is the subject of a future entry!) on 5-or 6-point scales on questions about the difficulty of the workload, fairness of grading, and overall impressions of the course and instructor. Students also respond to some open-ended questions.

Many institutions take the administration of course evaluations seriously. For example, instructors cannot be in the room when students are completing their questionnaires. Often a volunteer administers the evaluations and hand-delivers them to the department office.  The instructors do not see the evaluations until after the semester is over—after they have turned in grades. In my department, professors receive a typed version of the written comments from small graduate courses to prevent us from recognizing anyone’s handwriting. Some schools are administering these questionnaires on line, further reducing the chances that instructors will know who said what.

Student course evaluations play a huge role in academia: Instructors use them to gather useful information about what’s working and not working in their classrooms. Departments often use them as a primary (or sole!) basis for decisions about pay raises (when there are pay raises). And college committees rely heavily on student evaluations for decisions about tenure, promotion, and hiring.  For now, we’re not concerned with the broad questions of whether student evaluations are are too big a deal in decisions about pay and tenure, or whether they are an accurate measure of teaching (or learning). For now, let’s zoom in on an individual decision.

Consider the position of Dr. Bea A. Ware:

Dr. Ware has been teaching for several years at the University of Eastern South Dakota in Resume Speed, SD.  She is generally well-liked by her students.  However, this semester she has one course that was not as rewarding as usual.  As often happens, her course was made significantly more difficult by only one student.  For some reason this student didn’t quite get it—and she didn’t quite get him.  He did not do well, they had a few difficult conversations, and she knew he blamed her more than was warranted for his poor performance.

The day after administering her course evaluations Dr. Ware was working late and happened to notice the pile of course evaluation envelopes on the department secretary’s desk—ready to be shipped to the testing center for processing.  As luck would have it, the evals from her course were on top!  She was curious, and the envelope wasn’t sealed, so she took a look.  As she went through the responses she noticed the usual distribution:  mostly “excellent,” several “good,” only a smattering of “fair.”  Then, the ONE:  “poor.”  Lowest possible rating.  This one rating would bring her overall average down—not a lot, but enough that if people (like her chair) only looked at her average they would wonder why her evaluations were lower than normal. The comments the student wrote were a combination of personal attacks, assertions of his own brilliance, a call for Dr. Ware’s immediate dismissal, and just for good measure, a totally inappropriate sexist comment. 

The choice:  Should Dr. Ware remove that one questionnaire from the envelope?

One line of reasoning: Of course not!  Dr. Ware had no reason to look in the envelope in the first place—thus she violated a trust. Her overall score didn’t go down that much, and all students have a right to be heard—even obnoxious ones. If she has a problem she can always petition the department chair or dean to have the student’s ratings removed. What if everybody started removing a few ratings they didn’t like—what would that do to the integrity of the system?

Another line of reasoning: No problem in deleting that one response! After all, in statistical studies “outliers” (Thanks to Malcom Gladwell for popularizing this obscure statistical term!) are considered inaccurate and often removed from the analyses. Dr. Ware was not looking for these evaluations.  She didn’t break into a locked cabinet but just happened upon them. Nobody reads these things anyway, and this evaluation was not only not helpful, but offensive. By saying such obnoxious things the student forfeited his right to engage in free expression. The system will survive one shredded evaluation. This will not become a habit.

I’m hoping by now you’ve formulated an opinion. You’ve mostly likely also thought of some arguments I’ve missed. Now, let’s use a standard technique used in ethics training: Ask yourself, “What would have to change for my judgment to be different?”  Consider these “what-if’s,” or come up with some of your own. 

What if …:

  • … someone else (a secretary or colleague) had been looking through the envelope and brought the students’ questionnaire to Dr. Ware’s attention?
  • … Dr. Ware was up for a campus (or national) teaching award?
  • … Dr. Ware was up for tenure and every point counted more than in an ordinary semester?
  • … the student had not written any comments, sexist or otherwise, on the evaluation?
  • … the student had written some very respectful (although critical) comments about her outmoded and ineffective teaching methods?
  • … Dr. Ware asked your advice and promised that she wouldn’t tell anybody what you recommended?
  • … Dr. Ware was a friend or close colleague of yours?   
  • ... Dr. Ware, and/or the student, were from a different culture? Different country?
  • … you’re tired of all these questions about such a trivial situation?
  • … trivial situations give us insight into our thinking, our character, and our behavior in more important situations?


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).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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