Help my prof: my classmate accidentally messed up their evaluation
August 20, 2018 10:49 AM   Subscribe

My classmate marked all negative boxes on their eval and I am 100% certain it was an accident. What, if anything, should I do?

Professor left the room after passing out evals. We are a small chatty class so people kept talking while filling out their forms. One classmate said "going to mark all 'strongly agree' real quick because I have to go," then hurried off to wherever they had to be. Several people would have heard them say this. When I went to add my form to the pile, I saw that the form on top had all "strongly disagree" (that is, the most negative evaluation) straight down the line. Because of the distinctive (and eye-catching, which is the reason I noticed... think glitter) pen they used, I knew immediately that it belonged to the person who had said out loud that they were marking positively. I didn't read the rest of the form, but given the context, and the fact that this classmate (along with the rest of us) has been outspoken in their appreciation and enjoyment of this class and our professor, I don't think they would want to let this stand. But the evals were handed in.

Obviously I wish I hadn't seen anything, but I did, so what (in the fucking fuck) do I do now?

Folks in academia, if check box answers on a student's teacher evaluation are obviously contrary to the rest of the assessment and/or every other eval from the class (which is not necessarily the case, but I would be surprised if it were) ... what happens? Does one "bad" review put someone's job at risk? Not sure if prof has tenure, but I would guess not yet since they are relatively new to the school. Should I send an anonymous message to the Dean and offer to tell them the student's name? If I were closer to this classmate, I would just let them know, but unfortunately this is not an option. Ugh, I'm going to turn everything in with my eyes shut from now on, I'm so mad at myself for this.
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total)
You should do nothing and you should not worry about this. Unfortunately, neither the Dean nor anyone else has any a priori reason to assume that you're correct that the student marked the evaluation the wrong way; fortunately, it would be rare for a single bad evaluation to dramatically affect the professor's career advancement possibilities. Disgruntled students exist, for a thousand different reasons, and a single disgruntled student can't tank a prof's career by filling out a dozen checkboxes.

Do not be mad at yourself for this, this is not your fault or your responsibility.
posted by Jeanne at 10:57 AM on August 20, 2018

Eval numbers are looked at as means, not medians. It's all averages, and while important, they aren't a god hand at the professor getting tenure, raises, or even continued employment. If there's a downward trend over several semesters, or a really sharp drop on the averages from one semester to another, the professor and department chair usually have a chat, but one eval from one student averaged over the class and then over all the classes that professor taught this semester, it's barely a blip on the radar.

Those comment sheets, those are where the real action takes place anyway. And professors I know get a kick out of reading those, usually because even in classes of 90, 4 classes a semester, they can still pick out which asshole wrote the bad thing about them. Even after it's been transcribed from written to digital.
posted by deezil at 11:09 AM on August 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Does one "bad" review put someone's job at risk?

No, not if it's just checkbox bad. Not unless there's a complaint attached to it that is both specific and verifiable and puts the university at some risk of bad publicity or legal action. Averages matter; where you stand in relation to your peers may matter. One single evaluation in one class will not matter in the long run, at all.

Should I send an anonymous message to the Dean and offer to tell them the student's name?

No, and the blatant hypocrisy of violating someone else's officially sanctioned anonymity while trying to maintain your own -- no. Do not ever consider trying to connect an individual's name to an anonymous class survey of any kind, unless you know for a fact it's got a threat of violence or anthrax or something in it. You don't need to inform the professor or administration, but it would only be actively wrong to do so if you tried to report this student's name to anyone in order to connect it with their evaluation.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:11 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

And professors I know get a kick out of reading those, usually because even in classes of 90, 4 classes a semester, they can still pick out which asshole wrote the bad thing about them.

I was only ever a TA, not a full professor, and I think my evals reflected the generosity and pity with which kind-hearted students regarded me. Still, I had some bad ones, and I never did attempt and never would have attempted to figure out who wrote them. I would have been ashamed to admit it if I had. Even if you can tell which "asshole" doesn't have the same high regard for your pedagogical skills as you do yourself, you affect not to.

Evaluations are anonymous to prevent retribution and to allow honesty; the occasional offensive or personally attacking one is not representative of negative evaluations in general and does not taint the very concept of a negative evaluation by association. Negative evaluations are also not guaranteed to come from bad students.

Students should not ever feel pressured to give unearned top marks to one and all for the sake of professorial self-esteem and tenure, and certainly not out of paranoia that their professors will know it was them who said the thing.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:19 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to turn everything in with my eyes shut from now on, I'm so mad at myself for this.

You sort of learned by accident that you should mind your own business, which I also think is the answer to

so what (in the fucking fuck) do I do now?

Also, you really don't know "100% certain it was an accident".
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 11:22 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nobody cares what evaluation scores this one student gave. Seriously. You don't need to care either.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:33 AM on August 20, 2018

A straight-ticket rank across the board with no supporting comments would likely register as a grudge, statistical outlier, or a careless mistake. It's not going to raise alarm or break a career. Especially if the general feedback is positive.

I used to tabulate these as a student worker in an academic department, and in my day they were scored and averaged; the comments typed up. Nobody gets perfect reviews.

You shouldn't do anything. Confidential is confidential. It's not like anybody will contact the student based on an anonymous (or even sourced) tip; glitter pen isn't proof a given review can be traced a particular individual. And you can't ask someone to reconsider an anonymous review which defeats the purpose of anonymity and sounds like you're pressuring them to give a positive eval.

The only thing they could do in an egregious case where the form itself were flawed and most students had trouble with it would be scrap all the results and reissue the eval to everyone. They're not gonna reconvene the class to do that. Also, don't be so sure of what you heard-- a person could say one thing but do another.

Everyone is responsible for completing their own, and if this student was concerned about the implications of their review, they would have taken the time to read it.
posted by kapers at 11:33 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I do not think you should do anything. It doesn't matter.

But geez, this almost sounds like a psych experiment. Person loudly announces intent to give positive eval. Gives negative eval in an identifiable way. Leaves the room. It's like some sort of messed up lost letter experiment crossed with some moral thought-experiment.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:40 AM on August 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

I do admire your concern for your professor, though. Think of it this way: a well-liked prof with one or a few negative reviews is so normal, I cannot even tell you.

An individual student being asked to re-do a negative review so it is now positive, based on an anonymous tip, is odd, suspicious, and would reflect WAY worse on that professor.
posted by kapers at 11:51 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a tough crowd! I would contact the classmate and tell them. Then at least you did something.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 11:53 AM on August 20, 2018 [13 favorites]

If you let the classmate know, they could try to get it back based on the glitter pen. Or apologize to the professor.
Other than that, let it go.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:59 AM on August 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

The impact of a negative eval will vary a great deal, institution-to-institution and department-to-department. One bad eval can make a difference, and all-negs can really drag an average down, if the department goes by metrics. But negative evals which include specific negative comments tend to have a greater effect, and it sounds like there were no comments involved here.

Attempting to inform anyone will probably not do anything, though, besides make both the professor and the classmate feel bad. It sucks, but there's really nothing you can do here. The department is unlikely to let your classmate redo the eval (assuming the classmate even wants to do that) or omit the eval from the professor's overall numbers.
posted by halation at 12:16 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I get that this is an unfortunate situation, since you never know who in the tenure review process might decide to fixate on that One Really Bad Review, even if evaluations are intended to focus on average scores.

That said, there really isn't anything you can do about this. While there's a small chance that the negative review will be harmful, there's a greater chance that reporting the event will end up backfiring on your professor. "An anonymous report came in offering to name someone who gave you a negative score" isn't a great look, even though you have the best of intentions.

Fundamentally, I think that if you're at an institution where a single bad review is going to cause an issue, there would probably be an issue about something no matter what - if this mix-up hadn't happened, there would be something else. And at the end of the day, a lot of folks have a couple reviews like this anyway, from someone that just really didn't like the class.

I'd just forget about it - take that thoughtfulness and use it to write constructive comments in future class evaluations.
posted by pemberkins at 12:43 PM on August 20, 2018

Department chair at a state research university here. While a pattern of poor evaluations can be a problem, we disregard statistical outliers. Even the best teachers sometimes get terrible reviews, for many reasons, from clashing personalities to students' resentment at having to take the course (if it's a requirement).

There's no need for you to do anything.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:45 PM on August 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

There’s no Need to do anything, but I would maybe consider contacting the student out of curiousity.

But if you do, be prepared for them to get mad at you, not care, be confused or lots of other responses aside from the ‘thanks I will talk to dept head!’. Because they might have loudly announced as a form of deception, for fun or craziness or whatever, in addition to a casual mistake like you seem to be assuming.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:31 PM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

(I am a uni student)

Honestly, I wouldn't worry about it. I understand the instinct, but I just don't think those evaluations matter so much that someone is going to get fired or get their pay docked from a couple of bad ones. As people have said above, the mean is what they look at plus any extra comments (which your friend didn't write anyway) so I doubt it will have some devastating effect.

I agree that I would definitely not contact the professor in order to retain anonymity ( I do believe that is important because professors can be biased jerks unfortunately), but I don't (and I know my cohort certainly don't) keep scores secret from my classmates. We discuss them at length; before, during, and after we do them. I find it hard to imagine there's some magical shroud of secrecy that people are trying to maintain but maybe your cohort is very different to mine. I wouldn't feel betrayed if I were your classmate and you mentioned this to me.

(Also, don't feel bad! Unless you're going to walk around with your eyes closed, you're going to see things sometimes! I see other people's test papers all the time, it can't be avoided. As long as you don't use the info for evil, it's fine.)
posted by BeeJiddy at 5:46 PM on August 20, 2018

I work in the legal department at a large Canadian university.

It would be remarkable if “getting a couple of negative check marks” was the worst thing a faculty member did. (And got away with, and lived to teach another day.)

I expect that this is not the kind of thing that would attract any serious attention from decision-makers.
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:36 PM on August 20, 2018

My experience in graduate school was that when they passed out the evaluations, there would always be one or two students saying "Now, is a 5 low or high?" My guess is this happens from time to time to all faculty members who teach enough students - and if it happens to everyone, it should factor into what the evaluators expect to see.
posted by metahawk at 9:38 PM on August 20, 2018

I've had this happen to me as a prof back before they tabulated the comments separately from the numbers - great comments giving praise and saying nothing should change from a student who gave 1 across the board on the scale of 1-5 where 5 was good.

If the prof is young, or the class is small, is probably let them know, not anonymously, that you happen to know that someone in the class got confused about the scale and accidentally scored them low when they meant high. Don't tell them your friend's name, of course, or any other details. But it will make them feel better when they see that someone marked them so low and they won't obsess about what they did to upset that person.

If the class is large, don't bother. There will be at least one or two outliers anyway and the prof will not pay too much attention to them. And if the prof is older they have probably seen it all anyway and are less anxious about what their evals mean.
posted by lollusc at 1:42 AM on August 21, 2018

I agree that if the class is small or the professor is young this matters more. When I taught, instructors got quality rankings based ONLY on their average scores, and in some of my smaller classes, a sheet like this would have really brought down my average and dropped me into a lower tier. I do think it's unlikely to be the one thing that prevents someone from getting tenure- but what if this instructor was an adjunct and depended on ratings to be re-hired? Or what if they've been working to demonstrate improvement in their ratings over multiple semesters per feedback from a pre-tenure committee?

I think you could report this without worrying about having to be anonymous- it's really easy to see this accidentally, as you did, and that doesn't mean you were snooping or intentionally violating someone's privacy. I think it's pretty conscientious of you to want to rectify this- it's hard out there for faculty these days.

I think the ideal thing to do would be to contact the student- I know you said you're not close, but maybe you could find them on fb and send them a message? Other posters are right that they might not have reason to believe you because you're not the student who filled it out incorrectly. I think it would also be fine to tell the professor pretty much exactly what you said here and have them decide whether and how to follow up about it.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:56 AM on August 21, 2018

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