The letters in coloured circles problem: Student evaluation lets us improve, but only the things we can change

Five faces ranging from smiling to frowning, representing a scale

I found this post about student evaluations deeply affecting (CW: self-harm, general realness). The author’s experience resonated.

Every class, as we waited to start, I would ask my students (blue squares on the video conference screen) if they had any gossip. “I need something,” I said. “Any catfights? Anyone get really drunk and moon their neighbors? Anyone’s roommate cheat on their boyfriend? I am desperate here.”

Sometimes there would be a “no :(” in the chat.

Usually just silence.

Response to Student Evaluations, Sarah E. Smith

Online meetings and tutorials where nobody else turns on their screens have been the leitmotif of the past eighteen months. Online discussions that end up becoming discussions only between the teaching assistant and I, while some letters in coloured circles look on.

It’s not dehumanising exactly. It’s… nothing?

Why don’t they turn on their cameras? I don’t know. They might find it emotionally draining to meet via Zoom constantly. They might have a crappy internet connection. They might be doing other things. They might be self-conscious.

It’s not just students. Most meetings with staff are the same. A shared screen and a sea of letters in circles.

Connection seems to be missing. It’s not the medium, and it’s not solely the COVID pandemic. It’s something else.

Elaina Nguyen from Canada and fellow students from Australia, Hong Kong and Malaysia have argued that the values underpinning effective learning partnerships – respect, reciprocity, shared responsibility, authenticity, honesty, responsibility, inclusivity, reciprocity, empowerment, trust, courage, and plurality – all need to renegotiated not just for virtual environments, but also for our COVID world . They’re onto something.

Reading Sarah E. Smith’s post reminded me that some universities in Australia plan to publish subject evaluation metrics. There are proposals that students should be able to see aggregated subject evaluations, which are usually mean agreement scores with statements along the lines of “this subject enabled me to develop an understanding of the subject matter” or “this subject made me feel like part of a community”. Fair enough questions and useful information for teachers.

Student evaluation is unequivocally a good thing. It one of the main ways we can learn about what courses are like for students, and improve the way we teach.

The challenge is that often it’s not solely the teaching, the assessment activities or learning materials that students are evaluating.

Jenna Price captured the challenge at the heart of this in an article yesterday:

When students fill out those forms, they don’t answer the questions before them. La Trobe University lecturer Troy Heffernan has published widely on what students really mean when they rate subjects and the teachers who teach them. It’s about gender, race, accent. It’s also about institutional practices.

What goes wrong when uni students mark their teachers

Evaluation is only helpful if we’re able to act on the insights it offers. If students are using them to express dissatisfaction with student-to-teacher ratios, institutional policies, or have unacknowledged gender or racial biases , their usefulness evaporates. Similarly, evaluation scales become less useful for ongoing improvement if used as proxy metrics for poorly defined staff performance outcomes.

The way forward is clearly to develop more collaborative pedagogies based on students as partners , including co-creation of subjects and recognising students as consultants in that process.

At this time, what we need to improve as teachers probably isn’t captured through an agreement scale, valuable as that could be in the proper context. It’s solving the letters in coloured circles problem. It’s figuring out what’s really going on for the humans behind the circles.

I’d like to add one question to the student evaluation forms: why don’t they turn on their cameras?


Ntem, A., Nguyen, E., Rafferty, C., Kwan, C., & Benlahcene, A. (2020). Students as partners in crisis? Student co-editors’ perspectives on COVID-19, values, and the shift to virtual spaces. International Journal for Students as Partners, 4(2), 1–8.
Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S. L., Matthews, K. E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R., & Swaim, K. (2017). A Systematic Literature Review of Students as Partners in Higher Education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1).
Heffernan, T. (2021). Sexism, racism, prejudice, and bias: a literature review and synthesis of research surrounding student evaluations of courses and teaching. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–11.