Notes on a University Student Questionnaire

On Ephemera

If Flaubert was able to write the first great modern novel from a minor newspaper article about a young provincial wife’s suicide, certainly I should be able to bang out a halfway decent post from some contemporary ephemera. So many flecks of useful information flit past us without remark. It was Philip K. Dick who said that signs of the divine often first appear in our world at the trash strata. This is a very writerly attitude. Proust, similarly, read every newspaper item, no matter how trivial, with avid interest and incorporated them into his work and J.G. Ballard wrote fiction that drew on medical reports and the most forgettable technical manuals.

For my uses, the novelist’s approach to ephemera won’t work. Novelists are generally concerned with discovering the truths about individuals found in overlooked details and then using these insights to illuminate human nature. I’m more interested in the truths of institutions as revealed through their language and fleeting communications. This seems more pressing right now, and let’s be clear – part of what we’re up against in our modern condition is the mutation of language by administrators, bureaucrats, and those in political power. George Orwell is naturally the go-to person on this subject because he wrote so clearly on the topic, especially in reference to totalitarian states and ideologies. But power seems more diffused now, less bluntly ideological, and more universal. We get worn down by the sheer volume of corporate newspeak that we experience at work or in the media before politicians even get the chance to lie to us.

The ‘Stop and Go Review’

student

Wikicommons image.

Sometimes, the corporate language reveals more than it conceals about how these institutions think and what motivates them. I recently found a performance review sheet for “instructors” (the neologism that has replaced “Professor” in academia because Professor still implies tenure and a majority of the people teaching in universities are untenured adjuncts or grad students) at the university where I work as a cleaner. Key to the administrative mentality is the belief in the creation of a sort of auditing regime to ensure top-down control over everyone in the organization. Students are enlisted through these regular surveys, or in the case of political correctness willingly sign up for surveillance duty, but in the end real power is held by the university trustees. Everyone submits to it, more or less.

At the top, the document is called a “Stop and Go Review“, as opposed to a performance review or a customer satisfaction survey. The students are asked for two specific things that you would like your instructor to stop doing and continue doing in order to significantly improve the class. The assumption, from the beginning of the exercise therefore, is that the course will be found to be flawed and deficient, significantly so, and it’s up to the student, the least-educated member of the community by definition, to hold the most educated members accountable. In fact, their subjective preferences are to be the criterion for judging how a course is conducted – not necessarily what would best educate someone on the topic. By a superficial reading, this would seem to be an obvious “inversion of authority”, once upon a time a conservative concern. But, again, the overall goal is administrative control over what happens in the lecture hall, and not student empowerment, something that is conveniently overlooked as well when the annual dust-ups over political correctness on campus get covered in the media.

To return to the conservative theme of inversion of authority, because someone has to, the student is asked to rank the instructor on a scale of 0-10 on three items. The first is bizarre and revealing: The instructor’s ability to meet the course’s learning objectives is____. One might assume that the student is responsible for meeting a course’s “learning objectives,” but in the administrative viewpoint the onus is on the instructor to meet these objectives in the eyes of every student. Without any clear understanding of how to actually assess this success, however, it’s up to the student’s objective impressions to make the call. The message is clear though as to who is to be held accountable. In such a situation, grade inflation in academia becomes relatively understandable as a way of shaping the student impressions that will ensure that an adjunct, always in a precarious position, will remain employed.

For me, the most interesting line is the first: “The purpose of this questionnaire is to conduct a ‘check-in’ with students to ensure that the manner and style of delivery thus far is aligned with the overall learning objectives of the course.” I’m not sure how manner and style differ, nor how a student would know if either is aligned with the overall learning objectives of the course. Note that word though: delivery. The nuances of teaching and learning are completely removed and an education is something that is delivered to the student as a ready-made product through an instructor’s style. Given the underlying cynicism of this, it’s not clear why a course wouldn’t simply be best delivered by a skilled actor performing the material given in course books or a retired Professor’s course notes.

In Summary

At this point, I think we can offer a brief summary of how a university administrator understands the somewhat elusive practices of educating and learning. The understanding seems to be that knowledge is something that is first charted out through course objectives, then delivered through an instructor’s manner of presentation, and finally assessed as a result of the instructor’s manner of delivery. More than anything, this recalls the way that “information” is presented by a tour guide, in which the overall experience is more valuable than any specific learning achieved on the part of the tourist. What somewhat mitigates the cynicism of this administrative understanding of, let’s be honest, the one thing a university should understand is that it’s relatively too confused to be wholly cynical. There’s a lingering feeling that the administrators in charge of assessing teaching aren’t entirely sure what it is or how it should function.

And, of course, we can expect most undergraduates to respond to such questionnaires with healthy and redemptive eye-rolling. It’s worth mentioning, in conclusion, that I found the questionnaire form in a corner of a building where someone had tossed it out without starting or completing it.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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37 thoughts on “Notes on a University Student Questionnaire

  1. As a former associate professor (I never did get tenure, though), I was subject to many student evaluations. Not everybody took the exercise in good faith, but those of us who did found that they were not very valuable at improving one’s teaching. The ratings definitely suggested a spread between “happy” and “not happy”, but most of the more specific comments did not seem very useful to me in understanding how to improve.

    So, I’m sure, somebody decided to “improve” the questionaires, which were, as you imagine, mandated by some higher authority. Sometimes asking a more specific question is good. Thus the ‘stop and go’ format. But it’s also the case that that higher authority has trouble writing the question that works from the students point of view.

    I have no issue, though, with the power inversion. It’s good to be reminded that the instructorship is there to serve the student, even as they hold authority over them.

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    • Yeah, I taught at a university for about five years and got them too. I had generally glowing reviews and found the few complaints helpful. But, we just had a form that said something like ‘What did you find most helpful?’ ‘What did you find most confusing?’ and gave a good amount of space to write. What I found amusing about this one was the language- it read like something dreamed up by an HR person at Dunder Mifflin.

      I’m sort of groping for a general thesis about the power inversion in this post, but my sense is the students have no actual power, but there’s a sort of maintained illusion that they do very similar to what gets called “experiential marketing” in business. This ties in with the talk about PC on campus because I think the power of students is fairly illusory there too. I think student power is used as far as it serves administrative purposes, but that’s about it.

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      • Yes. Student “power” is a tool for senior administrators, not actual power, in most cases. I think that at the university where I seem to remember you working this is particularly true, although it’s far from rare.

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  2. “Found near a classroom garbage can: Contemporary education’s self-absorption as revealed by evals so derided by students they aren’t even worth throwing away correctly.”

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  3. I have no input as it relates to education. The last time I completed something like this was pre 92. I did, and do, often receive questionnaires or calls regarding a service that I’ve purchased, say a rental car. One person that called me asked for my “grade” on their service. When I gave them a C or 3 of 5 he was dejected and asked why and how could they have given me “outstanding” service. I responded with “I needed a car, you gave me one, checked me out and I was on my way in 15 minutes.” I got what I expected quickly and efficiently, but it wasn’t “outstanding”. How could it be? You might have gotten a better grade if you had surprised me with a free upgrade, but other than that, no. No one can seem to accept average nowadays. Sorry, but if your incentive comp is based upon outstanding, you damn well better figure out a way to deliver outstanding. So free upgrade to a BMW next time?

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    • Also you don’t tip, right, because they showed up and put the food on the table without spilling it, which is what they’re supposed to do, so why get paid extra for that?

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      • I detest tipping. It is degrading and objectifying.
        If you do your job, you deserve to get paid a decent wage, and if you don’t do your job, you deserve to get fired.

        I am well prepared to pay more overall in order to not be expected to tip.

        Besides, who really wants everyone hitting on your date?

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      • I usually tip well. It’s become confusing in Ontario because the norm is now different rates for tips: 15% for good service and 20% for great service, which is something I don’t feel like judging. Plus I went to a place recently where the card swipe machine asked if I wanted to tip 18%, 20% or 25%, which is even more confusing. Basically, I’m glad to see more places going to the system of paying a better wage and asking customers not to tip because it’s already in the price of the food.

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      • Actually, I tip very well. My gf keeps telling me I should only tip on the value of the meal, not including taxes. Pff. Shesh, it’s a few extra bucks. Hell, I even tip the carry out guys when I get it. Someone’s gotta assemble the carry out package.

        However, I’d be cool with never tipping again if it was factored into the cost of the meal and the service was decent. The problem you get is if it’s factored in and the service sucked…well.. watcha gonna do?

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    • you were probably the lowest reviewer that month/week.
      And obviously your auto folks don’t know much about reviews, in general.
      I do know how to scam reviews in order to get attention drawn where I want it.

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    • Knowing how the results are going to be used, I tend to give the poor flunky in the trenches a break and treat the 1-5 scale as a 3-5 scale, with 1-2 reserved for actually defrauding me, putting a coke can with a bolt inside in the upholstery, or any contact with fecal matter.

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  4. Dude, this “learning objectives” culture needs to die a quick death. It’s interesting as hell for me though, since I’d been out of school for eight years before going back.

    There was a discussion on my program’s Facebook page about this a while back. I wrote:

    “For what it’s worth, I looked into this a while ago. It seems that it’s all based on theories of “adult learning” that are all the rage nowadays: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andragogy. This style of education delivery seems to work for some people, but it has its problems: for example, it requires student familiarity with its own structure; it’s a bit too based on the notion that “adults” are merely information-absorbing automatons and incapable of grasping things intuitively for my liking; and it actively tries to limit information that is presented to what is strictly and objectively “relevant”, which is just plain silly. Personally (and for any fellow education nerds out there) I prefer the somewhat less-popular theories of Kieran Egan, which conceptualize education as a limitless process: http://ierg.ca/about-us/what-is-imaginative-education/… Here’s another document that shows where they’re coming from: https://tulane.edu/som/ome/upload/Med-Ed-as-AdultLearning_JSadlerDMiller.pdf… I do find the idea of limiting knowledge to what’s “relevant” both offensive and problematic, and there is of course the caveat that none of this is supported by empirical research; but there is a lot that is appealing about adult learning theory.”

    In short, I think they’re well-meaning but deeply, deeply misguided.

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    • From my perspective as an instructor who teaches adult students, it’s also equally inane. On the “Learning Objectives” section of our syllabi, we fill in a numbered list of generic sounding things vaguely related to the course materials and then attach the numbers to various parts of the schedule simply because it’s required by the administration. Then, the instructors never look at it again, and students never even read them in the first place.

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  5. This isn’t just academia. I’ve seen performance reviews in which I was ranked and had to rank other on whether the subject “supported corporate objectives”, and never had any fishing clue what that meant.

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    • You got ranked? Lucky duck. We have to rank ourselves. 90% of it is corporate gibberish. I work at a desk, but apparently I have to rate my “safety”. (I write that I do my training?).

      And then rate myself according to our mission statement. And a bunch of other things.

      Out of like…10 criteria, 2 actually vaguely want to know “What did you do and did you do a good job” and a third is sorta asking “Did you, I dunno, learn anything new or become more skilled by any means other than another year of doing your job”?

      And of course after I rate myself, my manager then rates me. His numbers are used, of course. Why did I rate myself? Pretty sure so my manager can just rubber-stamp it after asking my project lead “Hey, he doing okay? Great” and not spend six weeks doing this for every employee he oversees.

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      • My last company had a three step process:
        1) We rate ourselves (and, to be fair, our manager, although the latter is not as rigorous)
        2) Manager vets the ratings and we discuss cases where we differ
        3) All the numbers get adjusted to fit expected corporate parameters (i.e. the distribution has to look like a curve, no one gets an “excellent” unless they were actually promoted/commended)

        So basically, they spend quite a few (ostensibly non-billable) hours soliciting quality input, then reject our reality and substitute their own.

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      • I used to work at an oil company where I sat at a desk in an office building, but my group was eligible for the same kind of safety awards as the guys who, if they weren’t careful, could seriously blow shit up. We used to get gift certificates and stuff for “N days without a lost-time accident”.

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    • Same here, although my last company at least told us (on the appraisal form, not beforehand or at any time during the year itself) what the corporate objectives were.

      Since, in general, none of them were relevant to the development of the actual product we were selling – which is what I did – I felt comfortable giving myself high marks.

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    • For a couple of years, the performance review where I worked included a section on specific tasks the employee was supposed to finish in the coming year, as well as a section on how they had done on the previous year’s list. I admit to a certain amount of uneasiness the year my supervisor filled that one out with something like: “Mike accomplished none of the specific assignments made in last year’s performance review. In February, we discovered an entirely different research project was critically important. Mike did a magnificent job on that assignment.”

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    • In my experience, corporate objectives are generic-sounding platitudes that are numbered and repeated to employees like articles of faith. My wife’s company requires that every item on their performance appraisals be tied back to one of those corporate objective.

      Something like, “I saved the manufacturing line from a multi-million dollar disaster,” needs some sort of grounding in one of the Fundamental Truths instead of it being plainly obvious why it was a good thing to have done. Spell it out on the form or we won’t be sure you understand what your job is really about. It could only be more patronizing if they made us color the forms in with crayons.

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  6. What is the point of a university?

    If you see the primary point of a university as maintaining and growing an endowment, then this process of evaluation makes a lot more sense than if you see the primary point of a university as preparing people for employment.

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      • I do not know for how many classes that would be a reasonable premise.

        I know that there are a non-zero number of classes for which that would be an unreasonable premise. I don’t know whether those classes would be more or less likely to provide useless questionnaires.

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        • Maybe it’s just my background, but I’m … suspicious … of a class where, between the course title, the department, the textbook(s), and the syllabus, the student still has no idea what the class is supposed to be about, or what they’re supposed to have learned at the end of it.

          A class should have a describable purpose; ideally one that can be summed up in a simple sentence or two comprehensible to students entering it.

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              • Waaaay back in the 90’s, when I was merely engaged to Maribou and not yet married to her, we visited the Biodome in Montreal. A lovely little zoo. My favorite part was the zookeeper feeding the penguins who would periodically pick one of the greedier penguins up and throw them into the water.

                Anyway, on the way out, there was a guest book. In the guest book, people wrote their names, home cities, and comments.

                There was more than one comment from people who complained that the Biodome did not have any elephants. Came all this way to Montreal, went to the Biodome, and WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS THERE ARE PENGUINS BUT NO FREAKING ELEPHANTS WHAT A RIPOFF.

                Anyway, I am not confident that, at the end of the class, there would not be a noticeable number of students who would not act like “consumers who just finished consuming a product” rather than “students who just finished attempting to grapple with a subject”.

                But worse than that (above and beyond students checking off boxes in the “get a job from the upper middle class job place thingy” checklist, the administrations of the colleges/universities are, more and more, treating the students as if the folks at college are merely consumers consuming products rather than students attempting to grapple with mastery of a subject (or a technique of teaching oneself to teach oneself)… which creates a feedback loop that adds to the number of consumers checking off checkboxes.

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                • Well, I like elephants too. But part of the point of the zoo is to be delighted by the animals you see there and the zookeeper tossing a jackass penguin in the drink like that, so other penguins can get some food too, would have been a delight.

                  What a delight if the zookeeper could have tossed a jackass human patron into the penguin pool too, so other people could enjoy the zoo without having to deal with complaints about no elephants.

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    • I don’t think the purpose of the university is all that important here; I think agreement between students, teachers, and administrators on the purpose is important. The problem comes when half the students see the university as a diploma mill, a third see it as a great place to party, the rest see it as a place to learn, the administrators see it as a career path, the professors see it as a research base, and the grad students actually teaching the courses just want everyone else to show up on time and respond to emails.

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    • The primary purpose of a university is to charge you a lot of money for a piece of paper that tells people they can hire you.

      The secondary purpose of a university is teaching. For this, well-designed course evaluations can be useful. For example, a professor who gives genuine feedback on your work is better at helping you improve than a professor who just leaves a grade and a one-line comment.

      The tertiary purpose of a university is research.

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