Role of faculty reviews debated

Evaluations written by students should be public, some say

One professor is a metal music fan. Another is a ‘hottie’ of the balding Midwestern professor type. And then there’s the one who ‘is angry at the world.’ offers hundreds of reviews of Kansas University faculty. But such Web sites get their own mixed reviews from faculty and students at KU where the issue of student evaluations and how to use them is a source of debate.

“I think that student evaluations of classes are terribly important,” said David Holmes, a KU psychology professor. “We should make the ones that the university collects public. The university is very resistant to doing that. Students are paying for their education. We’re providing a service. Our performance should be public.”

KU surveys students about courses and generally uses the information to aid in decisions regarding promotion and tenure. Some, like Holmes, think the results of those surveys should be available to students. But others disagree.

KU surveys

While students can be the right people to ask about whether faculty are accessible, clear, timely or challenging, there is more to teaching, said Daniel Bernstein, professor and director of KU’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

Bernstein said students are probably not the right people to answer questions about whether the work is well-informed or whether the content is intellectually at the right level of challenge.

Bernstein also takes issue with broad survey questions that ask what students think of a class or instructor overall. He said they are an invitation to responses that have little to do with a teacher’s quality. He said he would like to see the surveys revised to be better indicators of teacher quality.

But Bernstein is not a proponent of making the survey results public.

“I personally think that that’s a violation of the normal privacies and confidentiality of the workplace,” he said, adding that the same spirit of the law that bars faculty from posting students’ scores on their office doors would apply in the public posting of such student surveys.

Online ratings includes reviews of faculty at many institutions. It allows people to rate professors for their easiness, helpfulness, clarity and “hotness.” Faculty also get scored for overall quality.

“I never take them too seriously,” said Jason Garden, a KU sophomore. “My favorite class this semester was a class that everybody I talked to hated.”

Garden said classes appeal to him because of the subject matter, not the professor.

But a professor’s personality and approach can make even a seemingly dull subject exciting, said Anastasia Kolobrodova, a KU sophomore, who checks the online ratings to gauge how others have viewed professors.

“If the professor can’t engage the students, then the class becomes worthless,” she said. “If (the rating) says that the professor is terrible and horrible and hates everything, then I won’t enroll in that section of that class.”

Craig Martin, a KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has been reviewed dozens of times on

“It’s a bit silly, but I don’t see any harm,” he said. “I don’t think it’s all that serious. It’s a popularity contest.”

Bernstein said the online reviews could be used solely for humor. He said it’s impossible to know whether respondents actually took the courses they claim or even to know if they’re students at all.

“I do not look at them at all,” Bernstein said. “I don’t know if I’m rated or if my colleagues are rated, and I don’t care. They have no professional value at all.”

Student attempts

Martin said he takes KU’s student evaluations seriously, particularly when a student is upset about something. In those situations, he said, the evaluation drives him to be more careful.

“I don’t want them to necessarily like me, but I don’t want them to think I’m horrible,” he said.

Negative or brutal evaluations sting, Martin said.

“They always hurt even if they’re few and far between, which they are,” he said.

KU’s students have developed online surveys by students for students. But the program has been plagued by poor participation.

Student Body President Nick Sterner said the surveys evaluate courses, not professors.

“We wanted to make it something that was driven by learning outcomes and work accomplished,” he said.

But the problem is students aren’t required to participate, so response rates are low, Sterner said, noting that he hopes to have changes in place by spring that will encourage more participation.