By Eric Santiago
Three years after switching to online course evaluations, Stony Brook University professors are not receiving feedback from nearly as many students, something they said is hurting both the students and the staff.
Richard Lefferts, a professor who teaches the recitation for first-year physics courses, said approximately 10 percent of his students complete the end-of-semester evaluations and it’s making his job more difficult.
“I’m hearing three voices out of the 30 kids per recitation,” said Lefferts. “And while I think their comments are helpful and all, I have no idea if that’s representative of how everybody thinks.”
Without students’ opinions, Lefferts said he can’t make changes like he did when they overwhelmingly reported that he needed to work on his handwriting.
But students like Jairo Ortega, a senior biology major, don’t usually have any way of knowing if their evaluations made a difference because it is likely a student could only have a professor once while at Stony Brook.
“I don’t get to see the change if there is any,” said Ortega. “I have recommended things, but I’m not 100 percent sure if they have changed anything.”
He still fills out the evaluation anyway, believing that his feedback is helpful to professors, but the same can’t be said for other students.
Last semester, Tawhidul Islam, a freshman mechanical engineering major, completed the evaluation for a class that was part of a sequence of classes. He has the same professor again this semester..
“I didn’t see any change,” said Islam, who added that he’s less motivated to fill out evaluations again.
The same is true for Kreshnik Burani, a junior biology major who transferred to Stony Brook last year. Burani filled out the evaluations last semester, but said he now feels that most students aren’t honest or don’t really care about them.
“They’ll be like, ‘the class is fine, the professor is nice,’ and they really don’t offer helpful advice,” said Burani. “I don’t think it makes much of a difference.”
Lefferts said he felt the same way.
“The person who says you’re doing a fine job is not helping you improve,” said Lefferts.
But there’s a middle ground between providing useful feedback and being overly critical. The latter is what most professors and students are seeing from websites like RateMyProfessors.com, a student-made website that offers reviews that can help them select courses.
A recent survey conducted by The Stony Brook Independent found that most students use RateMyProfessors.com. Some instructors are less enthusiastic about it, though.
Andrei Antonenko taught in the linguistics department while he was a graduate student, and found the website to be damaging. He said it was easy to tell in the online course evaluations if someone was biased because they would rarely write more than “this professor sucks” or give the lowest ratings without justification.
RateMyProfessors.com is based on anonymous reviews, features an average rating and is fully viewable to the public. A minority of negative reviews can impact an average and, according to Antonenko, can be damaging.
“It’s kind of painful to see that,” said Antonenko. “There’s no way to defend yourself. It might affect my future job search even. People do look at those things.”
Correction: An earlier version referred to Kreshnik Burani as “she.” The article has been revised to use the correct pronoun, “he.”