As a college professor with 27 years’ experience, Pat Atkinson has heard his share of complaints from students.
Atkinson, who is the chair of MU’s Theater Department, said students come to him all the time to talk about their problems with faculty but rarely come with praise.
“Positive things are not often said, and it’s not because the professors aren’t any good,” Atkinson said. “It’s just people don’t really have a good outlet to talk about the good stuff.”
At the end of every semester, students evaluate their classes and instructors anonymously. Often, those evaluations are focused on the negative and don’t contain constructive criticism many professors would like to hear.
Now, a new Web site, called Thankaprof, gives students an opportunity to heap praise on their favorite teachers and write positive comments, which are sent to their professors. The site has gotten more than 100 responses so far, according to Andrew White, MU’s director of educational technology, who oversees the site at thankaprof.missouri.edu.
“Students have been going into great detail,” White said. “It hasn’t just been ‘He was great;’ some have said that professors really inspired them.”
Erika Breedlove, who was a teaching assistant for two years, has heard many professors complain about personal attacks in written evaluations from students. She says professors can be genuinely hurt by them.
“For some reason, it seems like students feel really good about anonymously ripping someone apart,” Breedlove said. “I’m not sure what the reasoning is.”
White thinks students feel disconnected from end-of-semester evaluations because they are filled out on the last day of class, when it is too late to make changes. The Thankaprof site will be accessible throughout the year.
Though there have been no problems yet, White has taken precautions so the site will not be misused. The messages are read by White’s department before professors receive them to ensure that they are legitimate compliments. Breedlove, who is also a graduate student, found the site easy to use.
“Perhaps the best part was that the professors really liked receiving the comments,” Breedlove said. “They all got back to me saying they appreciated it.”
William Horner, a political science professor, said he typically receives some positive feedback in end-of-semester evaluations. But he said the site gives teaching faculty another opportunity to learn from students.
“It’s good for us as instructors to know not only things that we’ve done badly, but to get positive reinforcement — to confirm that things we’ve done have worked out,” Horner said.
Carrie Brown, who taught a large lecture class in journalism during the winter semester, agrees.
“It was really nice to get the positive feedback,” she said. “In large classes, not everybody stays to even fill out the end-of-semester evaluations.”
In late May, student evaluations were the topic of lively conversation at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. The evaluation process needs a major overhaul, reported two professors from the University of Washington who presented an analysis of student evaluations of more than 14,000 courses. The study concluded that student evaluations are often heavily influenced by class size and don’t often capture a good picture of instructional quality.
MU also uses mocat.missouri.edu, where professors can ask their students to fill out mid-semester evaluations. White said the site has been effective, and he’s looking into other ways, such as text messaging, to increase the communication between students and faculty.
“Technology has made things easier,” White said. “But the important thing is that it’s saving time for the teaching-and-learning process. MU is large, but there are still personal learning relationships between faculty and students. We’re facilitating communication.”