A study of students at the University of Northern Iowa and Southeastern Oklahoma State University found that a third of respondents on course evaluations lie. The Des Moines Register interviewed one of the authors, who said that the mistruths are more likely to be motivated by animus toward the faculty member than appreciation.
The findings confirm other research that questions the validity of student evaluations. In one study, good-looking professors outscored their more homely counterparts on year-end evaluations. The anonymous nature of the forms leads to some disparaging or simply bizarre comments. A colleague of mine received the feedback that, “Dr. X creates a wholesome, Christian environment.” She wasn’t sure if the remark was meant as satire or flattery.
Despite the shortcomings of student evaluations, trainees are in the best position to offer opinions about how teaching can improve. One solution might be to make the forms identifiable so respondents have to own their words. Another idea is for a neutral outsider to conduct focus groups or interviews with students about the course and summarize the suggestions for the faculty member.