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Appearance, insults, allegations, blame and threats: an analysis of anonymous non- constructive student evaluation of teaching in Australia Appearance, insults, allegations, blame and threats: an analysis of anonymous non-constructive student evaluation of teaching in Australia

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Within higher education student evaluations of teaching (SET) are used to inform evaluations of performance of courses and teachers. An anonymous online survey was constructed and implemented using Qualtrics. This study was situated within a more extensive study investigating the impact of narrative SET comments on teaching quality and the health and wellbeing of academic staff. This paper reports specifically on two open questions that were designed to elicit examples of non-constructive and offensive anonymous narrative feedback. Five themes were identified: allegations; insults; comments about appearance, attire and accent; projections and blame; and threats and punishment. These are represented in non-redacted form. Personally destructive, defamatory, abusive and hurtful comments were commonly reported. These kinds of comments may have adverse consequences for the well-being of teaching staff, could contribute to occupational stress and in some cases could be considered libellous. The high prevalence of offensive comments accessible to and shared by teachers may be a reflection of the anonymity afforded to respondents using internet surveys, resulting in de-individuation and enabling some respondents to give voice to ‘hate speech’ which has no place in evaluations of teaching.
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Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/caeh20
Appearance, insults, allegations, blame and
threats: an analysis of anonymous non-
constructive student evaluation of teaching in
Australia
Richard Lakeman, Rosanne Coutts, Marie Hutchinson, Megan Lee, Debbie
Massey, Dima Nasrawi & Jann Fielden
To cite this article: Richard Lakeman, Rosanne Coutts, Marie Hutchinson, Megan Lee, Debbie
Massey, Dima Nasrawi & Jann Fielden (2021): Appearance, insults, allegations, blame and threats:
an analysis of anonymous non-constructive student evaluation of teaching in Australia, Assessment
& Evaluation in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2021.2012643
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.2012643
Published online: 16 Dec 2021.
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ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Appearance, insults, allegations, blame and threats: an
analysis of anonymous non-constructive student
evaluation of teaching in Australia
Richard Lakemana , Rosanne Couttsa, Marie Hutchinsona , Megan Leea ,
Debbie Masseya , Dima Nasrawia and Jann Fieldena
aFaculty of Health, Southern Cross University, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia;
ABSTRACT
Within higher education student evaluations of teaching (SET) are used
to inform evaluations of performance of courses and teachers. An anon-
ymous online survey was constructed and implemented using Qualtrics.
This study was situated within a more extensive study investigating the
impact of narrative SET comments on teaching quality and the health
and wellbeing of academic staff. This paper reports specifically on two
open questions that were designed to elicit examples of non-constructive
and offensive anonymous narrative feedback. Five themes were identified:
allegations; insults; comments about appearance, attire and accent; pro-
jections and blame; and threats and punishment. These are represented
in non-redacted form. Personally destructive, defamatory, abusive and
hurtful comments were commonly reported. These kinds of comments
may have adverse consequences for the well-being of teaching staff,
could contribute to occupational stress and in some cases could be
considered libellous. The high prevalence of offensive comments acces-
sible to and shared by teachers may be a reflection of the anonymity
afforded to respondents using internet surveys, resulting in
de-individuation and enabling some respondents to give voice to ‘hate
speech’ which has no place in evaluations of teaching.
Student evaluation of teaching (SET), first introduced in the 1920s, has become a universal feature
of higher education (Algozzine et al. 2004). A recent review of studies examining SET (Heffernan
2021) found at least 16,000 higher education institutions routinely survey students. SET has long
been valued and utilised in different ways to inform the professional development of teaching
staff and course development. The authors of early reports on SET suggest that evaluations needed
to be anonymous so that they ‘could not be used against students’, that results should only be
available to teaching staff to use for their purposes, and noted that a large proportion of com-
ments, whilst mostly favourable, were typically about the personality or attire of teaching staff
(Ostlund 1955). However, since the adoption of ‘new managerialism’ in the higher education sector
from the mid-1990s, SET has been institutionalised, procedures standardised, anonymous numerical
rating of teacher competence as well as satisfaction with courses normalised, and teaching staff
‘benchmarked’ against others (Lee, Coutts, et al. 2021, 7). As a ‘key performance indicator’ and the
primary means of evaluating teaching effectiveness, SET is now routinely used to inform judgments
about promotion and tenure (Clayson and Haley 2011). A key element of contemporary SET in
© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Richard Lakeman richard.lakeman@scu.edu.au
https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.2012643
KEYWORDS
Student evaluation of
teaching;
non-constructive
feedback;
anonymous feedback
2 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
Australia is that responses are completed anonymously and online. It is proposed that anonymity
is a factor that leads to antisocial behaviour. This paper focuses on anonymous narrative feedback
and, comments that are perceived as non-constructive or offensive.
Background
SET typically involves evaluation of teaching staff and courses, with students being invited to
rate both, usually using Likert scales and via anonymous narrative comments. While some have
argued that a multidimensional approach to evaluating teaching effectiveness, including these
factors, is valid and reliable (Burdsal and Harrison 2008), these assumptions are increasingly
being challenged (Hornstein 2017; Esarey and Valdes 2020; Heffernan and Bosetti 2020). For
example, a recent meta-analysis concluded that SET ratings are unrelated to student learning
and that students do not learn more from teachers with higher SET ratings (Uttl, White and
Gonzalez 2017). Nevertheless, teacher and course ratings accompanied by anonymous feedback
are the norm and facilitated by near-universal connectivity to the Internet and the ease with
which questionnaires can be deployed on mobile devices at any time. Little is known about
the motivation of students who complete SET relative to those who decline. Suffice to say,
overall response rates are typically low; students complete evaluations at a time of heightened
anxiety (usually during times when final assessments are due or have been marked) and often
in anticipation of doing poorly (Heffernan 2021).
The institutionalisation and massification of anonymous SET has accompanied the availability
and uptake of technology. SET is routinely undertaken online and anonymously at a time con-
venient to students. Since the famous Stanford prison experiments, anonymity has been consid-
ered one of the antecedents that can lead to a lowered threshold for expressing otherwise
inhibited behaviours (Diener 1977). Anonymity amongst other variables leads to a state of
de-individuation characterised by a loss of self-observation, self-evaluation and concern for social
evaluation (Diener 1977). De-individuation or the faceless anonymity of the Internet is theorised
to give rise to online exploitation, cyber-bullying, hate speech, and general meanness in some
online interactions (Myers 2016). The anonymity that the Internet affords is associated with
undisciplined, disinhibited and anti-normative behaviour (Guo and Yu 2020), that would not be
countenanced in face-to-face interactions. In light of this it is likely that anonymous internet
facilitated SET increases the likelihood of non-constructive feedback, bullying and incivility which
appears to be increasing in higher education (Heffernan 2021; Heffernan and Bosetti 2021).
These factors and others such as the psychological state and motivation of the student
completing the SET (Hoel and Dahl 2019), the time of completion, and not being in the physical
presence of those being commented on, or other cues for social etiquette, may lead to ratings
and comments which are not accurate and sometimes counter to social norms. Even the now
seemingly quaint and old fashioned idea of requesting SET be completed anonymously ‘in class’
has been found to double the completion rate although the impact on the tone of narrative
feedback is unclear (Kuch and Roberts 2019).
It is mainly in providing for SET in or at the end of class that anonymous versus open SET
has been examined. Afonso et al. (2005) noted that in an academic medical centre context SET
scores were significantly lower on all items when a questionnaire was administered anonymously.
They concluded that anonymous evaluation was a more accurate reflection of teaching perfor-
mance. This may be true in high esteem courses, for professions that have traditionally rigid
hierarchies, and where challenging the consultant or expert, who may have a relationship with
the student over many years, is difficult. It is far less clear whether anonymous SET serves any
useful function in the now massified and competitive higher education marketplace.
Small classes and long-term relationships with teaching staff throughout a degree were the
norm when anonymous SET was conceived (and less than 3% of the population completed
degrees). Since the beginning of the Internet age, the majority of school leavers (>70%) now
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 3
will complete degrees in most OECD countries and the projections are that this percentage will
increase (Teichler and Bürger 2008). The timing of SET, typically before grades are released but
after teaching staff can make any adjustments in response to feedback that might benefit
respondents, nullifies the argument that students are potentially vulnerable when undertaking
SET and therefore need to do so anonymously. Recent studies have found that SET after grade
release is influenced by the grade point average (GPA). Increasing the GPA will lead to a sig-
nificant increase in SET ratings (Stroebe 2020; Berezvai, Lukáts and Molontay 2021).
One review of the literature found that students at times falsify SET and a majority of stu-
dents in a survey knew of respondents who provided false or misleading responses to questions
(Clayson and Haley 2011). Other researchers suggest that the perceived charisma of the lecturer
accounts for most of the variation in ratings of lecturer ability and most course attributes
(Shevlin et al. 2000). While ratings have been examined in detail, the anonymous narrative
feedback has not been scrutinised systematically and across multiple sites. Tucker (2014) exam-
ined over 30,000 comments from 17,855 surveys at one Australian university in 2010 and found
only thirteen abusive comments and 46 unprofessional comments. This number was perceived
to have remained static and was perceived as so insignificant that removing anonymity was
not considered. Tucker (2014) reported that comments were only shared with the course coor-
dinator and head of school. Others have suggested that in recent years the rates of uncon-
structive and offensive comments have increased (Heffernan 2021; Heffernan and Bosetti 2021).
The actual frequency and prevalence of non-constructive and/or offensive narrative comments
is not reported in the literature to date. It is also rare for actual examples of non-constructive
or offensive comments to be shared in the literature and this paper addresses this gap.
Aims
This project aimed to collate and categorise examples of non-constructive SET and is located
within a larger project which surveyed the impacts of anonymous narrative feedback on teaching
quality and the health and well-being of academic teaching staff. It was undertaken in the
context in which the workforce is becoming increasingly casualised and insecurely tenured, and
when ongoing tenure is often highly dependent on positive reviews of teaching (Lee, Coutts
et al. 2021). Many commencing academic teaching staff will have had little prior experience of
receiving anonymous feedback. This paper also aims to represent in an anonymous but
non-redacted form the kind of non-constructive feedback teachers may expect to receive at
some time in their career. Thus, early-career higher education teaching staff may be better
psychologically prepared for non-constructive feedback and consider collating a broader range
of evidence (e.g. peer observation) to support their performance reviews.
Methods
This research utilised a mixed-methods approach to retrospectively investigate the responses
of teaching academics to anonymous narrative feedback from students across Australian uni-
versities. An anonymous online survey was constructed and deployed using Qualtrics. The
questionnaire was comprised of 30 questions focusing on employment type, history and demo-
graphics (13 questions), processes employed to share anonymous feedback and examples of
constructive and non-constructive feedback (seven questions), perceptions of the impact on
teaching quality (five questions) and impacts on social and psychological wellbeing (five ques-
tions). This paper reports on the two open questions eliciting examples of non-constructive
and offensive anonymous narrative feedback. The research team extensively trialled the ques-
tionnaire before deployment and approval obtained from the Southern Cross University Human
Research Ethics Committee (2021/047).
4 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
Table 1. Additional demographic details.
N= %
Ethnicity
Australia and NZ 595 75.2
Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander
91.1
European 88 11.1
Asian 50 6.3
North American 81.1
African 3.4
United Kingdom 32 4.0
Not reported 3.3
Employment status
Tenured 473 59.8
Probation 101 12.8
Fixed term 100 12.6
Casual/sessional 116 14.7
Not reported 1.1
Employment grade
Associate lecturer or equivalent 41 5.2
Lecturer 287 36.3
Senior Lecturer 195 24.7
Associate Professor 85 10.7
Professor 67 8.5
Not reported 116 14.7
Higher education teaching staff in Australia were recruited via a snowballing strategy and
social media over three months in 2021. This included emails to colleagues, promotion on
Twitter and Facebook as well as an invitation to participate in ‘The Conversation’ (Lee, Nasrawi
et al. 2021). Data were analysed using SPSS v28. Respondent characteristics were analysed
through univariate analysis (frequency, percent, means and standard deviation). The chi-square
test of independence was employed to establish significant relationships between categorical
variables. The responses to open-ended questions were thematically analysed by the first author
with the assistance of the software package NVIVO, and following the principles of inductive
content analysis outlined by Corbin and Strauss (2014). This was an iterative process in which
every line and example was coded, and as these appeared to coalesce into sub-themes, these
were labelled and described, previous data coding reviewed, and examples subsumed under
the new themes. The coding structure was reviewed by the research team with decisions made
about data reduction and agreement on final themes. All variation in responses was captured
in the narrative findings under the emerging themes. The verbatim findings are presented as
quoted, including profanity and with grammatical and spelling errors intact.
Findings
The sample
The total number of respondents was 791. The majority were employed outside the Group of
8 universities (81%, n = 641), that is those considered Australia’s eight leading research-intensive
universities. Most reported working in regional centres (57.4%, n = 454) rather than metropolitan
settings (42.6%, n = 337). Most were female (77.6%, n = 614), followed by male (20.9%, n = 165)
or non-binary (0.4%, n = 3). The mean age of the cohort was 48.6 years (SD 8.24). The mean
duration of employment in the university sector was 13.44 years (SD10.1). Ethnicity, employment
status and grade of respondents are reported in Table 1.
Almost all reported receiving non-constructive comments about their teaching and courses
at some time (91.4%, n = 723). No dependent relationship was identified between the receipt
of distressing, offensive or disrespectful student feedback and gender (χ2 (16, N = 675) = 21.17,
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 5
p = .172), ethnicity (χ2 (7, N = 697) = 4.840, p = .679) or employment grade (χ2 (4, N = 645 = 3.081,
p = .544). Close to one-third of respondents reported that non-constructive, personalised or
offensive comments were not redacted before being shared with the staff member concerned
or others (27.3%, n = 216). As illustrated in Table 2, only a minority reported that anonymous
narrative feedback was shared exclusively and as a matter of policy with the staff member
concerned (although it is unclear who has access to these data). Close to half reported this
feedback was shared by immediate supervisors and others in their workgroups. Thus, for most
respondents, anonymous feedback needs to be acknowledged as contributing to a semi-public
discourse about them as individuals. As was often made clear by some respondents, this feed-
back was influential in shaping their career trajectories and promotional prospects.
Respondents were asked to provide examples of non-constructive feedback and 552 (68%)
provided examples (16,484 words), which mostly took the form of direct quotes. However, some
respondents also provided a commentary. Respondents were asked if they had ever received
anonymous narrative feedback about their teaching or courses which they found distressing,
offensive or disrespectful, and 68.8% (n = 544) responded yes. Of these respondents, 378 provided
further examples of offensive or distressing comments (9,867 words). There was some repetition
in the comments about distressing, offensive or personalised feedback so only new statements
were included.
The threads and themes
Examples of feedback considered by respondents to be nonconstructive fell into five themes:
(i) allegations; (ii) insults; (iii) comments about appearance, attire, and accent; (iv) projections
and blame; and (v) threats and punishment (see Figure 1). Although conceptually each of these
themes represented 20% or more of the examples provided, there was considerable overlap.
For example, comments about appearance, dress or accent were often couched as insults, and
many examples provided encompassed multiple themes. Four threads were interwoven in the
comments which reflected poles on continua but were also independent sub-themes. Irrelevant
and ‘feedback’ unrelated to evaluation was at one pole benign and quite transparent and on
the other pole hateful and defamatory. There was also the superficial and absurd which could
be dismissed as such but at the other end of the continuum were catastrophic and totalising
comments, which are impossible to address because they reflect a dichotomous view of both
the recipient of feedback, the course or university.
This intersection of themes and subthemes was illustrated in numerous quotes of diatribes
or paragraphs of invective language, e.g.:
X should be sacked she is not up to the job they should replace X with the lab techs they know more
than her… X is way to old to be doing this job this course is a joke I’m going to another Uni… this unit
is the worst I have ever done… I will tell all my friends to take valium before they attend it next year…
Some comments verged on the incoherent, although the vitriolic sentiment was apparent.
For example:
Table 2. At your current university how widely is anonymous narrative student feedback shared?
Answer %N
With the academic staff member only 11.8% 93
With the academic staff member and their immediate supervisor 45.6% 361
With the academic staff member and others in their work unit 29.8% 228
Widely within the University 10.4% 82
With students and university staff 2.9% 23
Did not respond 4.5
Total 100% 791
6 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
This subject is a disgrace to the University and to the students who have to listen to it. I suggest you
practice what you preach. For example when you have priests that rape children then this is a slap in the
face to any victim forced to do this pathetic subject.
Allegations
Many examples were personalised allegations of impropriety, substandard behaviour or flawed
character (see Table 3). These allegations were often offered with no evidence to support
statements:
It was clear lecturer x had no idea what she was talking about and didn’t want to be there…
Closely related were allegations of incompetence such as not knowing how to run a course.
These statements also tended to overlap with other themes of projection and blame as the
following example demonstrates:
X teaches stuff that makes no sense and is no use, none of it makes any sense and she makes us feel
like idiots.
The next most common cluster of allegations was around being rude, racist, ignoring students
or being disrespectful towards students. These were often framed as insults. ‘She is really rude
which is why everyone hates her’. Perhaps more serious were allegations of academic miscon-
duct such as ‘Deliberately sabotaging students’ ability to learn by hiding content’ although like
most allegations, these were unverifiable and, as many respondents noted, were baseless
and false:
My tutor is clearly racist. The reason for my failure in this course lies entirely at my tutor’s feet. My tutor
should be reported for academic misconduct. She discriminates and has favourites, that is why I failed.
Many examples were given of allegations that people were harsh, unfair, nepotistic or dis-
criminatory whilst also alleging that they were unavailable, unfair or unhelpful.
Appearance, attire and accent
A large number of examples and comments related to appearance (n = 66), attire (n = 31) and
voice or accent (n = 45). These were often framed as insults and were gender-specific with
Figure 1. A typography of non-constructive feedback.
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 7
women most frequently reporting commentary on multiple aspects of their appearance and
presentation. Many simply reported that comments on appearance, clothing, hair and dress
were common:
X is a disgrace to the university and X department. She is rude to students when they ask for help in
tutorials and does not care for our learning. She presents herself in an unprofessional and frankly disgusting
way, her clothes are extremely unflattering and dresses way too short. I have been ‘flashed’ by her on 3
occasions, where she sits with her legs wide open in minuscule dresses covers nothing. I can’t even look
at her because she makes me feel sick.
Most of the examples related to appearance and attire were clearly intended to be insulting
and some respondents reported them as being ‘nasty’ and hurtful, although some suggested they
were intended as jokes and others labelled comments as examples of sexual harassment ‘nice
booty’, ‘I love your tits’, or ‘she shouldn’t wear such sexy clothes, it’s distracting’. One person stated
that a student used anonymous feedback to make a proposal of marriage.
Comments on appearance included that the lecturer ‘had dandruff’, ‘needed to pluck their
eyebrows’, ‘looked good’, ‘looked like an animal’, ‘looked scary’, looked like ‘something the cat
dragged in’, and had ‘weird body movements’. Many comments were highly insulting: ‘Fat pig’,
‘Fat bitch’ or Too ugly to teach’; or they were part of a diatribe of criticism:
X is useless, always has a cup of coffee with her and looks like she never sleeps. If she stopped drinking
coffee maybe she would be more intelligent.
Comments on attire were gendered and statements about students not liking people’s cloth-
ing: ‘She dresses like a hag’. One respondent stated that comments about the way she dressed
were circulated to the entire school. Others noted that students complimented them on their
jewellery, shoe collection, choice of clothing or other irrelevant details.
Table 3. Personalised allegations or accusations.
Academic misconduct Ignorant or lacking Poor listening skills
Arrogant intelligence Poor role model
Authoritarian Incompetent Poor teaching style
Being negative Inconsistent Poor time management
Biased Inexperienced Promoting a political agenda
Bigoted Infantilising of students Racist
Boring Insight less Rude
Bossy Irrelevant Self-centred
Conceited Lacking compassion Sexist
Condescending Lacking empathy Sexually provocative
Could do better Lacking emotional behaviour
Criticised online therefore intelligence Stupidity
not to be believed Lazy Talking about self too much
Discriminatory Mean Transphobic
Dishonest Misanthrope Unapproachable
Disinterested Naivety Unavailable
Disorganised Nepotistic Uncaring
Disrespectful Not a proper doctor Unfair
Distressing Not Nice Unhelpful
Doesn’t answer questions Out of Depth Unprepared for class
Drinks too much water Out of touch Unprofessional
Factually Incorrect Passive Aggressive Unqualified
Favouritism Pathetic Unreasonable expectations of
students
Feedback was not useful Poor body language Unsupportive
Harsh Poor classroom management Using big words
Hid from class Poor communication Withdrawn and cold
Poor emotional regulation
Poor English
Poor lecturing style
8 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
A large number of comments addressed people’s voice and most frequently that students
found it ‘boring’, ‘annoying’, ‘irritating’ or ‘droning’, that people spoke too fast or slow, or couldn’t
annunciate correctly: her voice is annoying and makes me sick/gives me a headache. Some might
have been constructive in as much as people’s paralinguistic cues and idiosyncrasies which are
under their control might be modified, but often these were framed as witticisms or insults:
Says yeah a lot. This term she has said yeah 2,362 times. Comments on accent were also common
and had racist overtones, with many students stating that they could not understand teaching
staff because of their accent despite them being native English speakers: She needs to adopt an
Australian accent better.
Insults and invective
An insult regardless of veracity is disrespectful, scornful or abusive. Most comments cited as
non-constructive or offensive appeared intended to wound or disrespect the person they were
aimed at. They were also by and large unverifiable, defamatory and often quite absurd. Most
insults were not particularly imaginative and involved name-calling such as: ‘bitch’, ‘bitter’, ‘crap’,
‘cunt’, ‘devils spawn’, ‘dick’, ‘dog’, ‘dinosaur’, ‘idiot’, ‘loser’, ‘lacklustre, ‘mentally unstable’, ‘missing in
action’, ‘mole’, ‘Nazi’, ‘needs to chill’, ‘out of control’, ‘pathetic’, ‘psychotic’, ‘senile’, ‘shit’, ‘smiling
assassin’, ‘stick with the day job [medicine]’, ‘time-waster’, ‘TRASH’, ‘unhappy’, ‘useless’, and ‘gangsta
tutor’ (the latter also perplexed the respondent). There was also a considerable variation on the
theme: ‘I hate everything about you’, ‘the teacher is the worst ever,’ or ‘everyone else is better’.
One respondent stated that the expletives were blocked out at their university, but the
meaning was clear. Another stated that at their university, expletives and offensive comments
are redacted but rephrased which left them wondering how bad the original ‘feedback’ must
have been:
[student found lecturer repetitive and did not find the delivery interesting], or [student expressed their
belief that the lecturer had significant bias]. It feels just as bad. How nasty must they have been for them
to have to redact it like that?
Many respondents stated that they could not repeat some of the things that had been
written about them, or they simply no longer look at their SET results for fear of what they
might say. Many people did report that they found the insults wounding and hurtful:
A student wrote a comment that was very hurtful about me eating a bat and giving COVID-19 to the
world. That I was personally responsible for the death of millions of people.
Others were equally imaginative, including that the lecturer: ‘needed moderation, that the
lecturer: ‘had killed their love of the subject’, ‘the doctor is lacking in confidence and should
sign up to a Toast Masters Course’ or that attendance at a lecture was ‘cruel and unusual torture’.
More often than not potentially cutting witticism degenerated into puerile name calling:
You are a cultural Marxist, your Wokeness undermines everything you do. Not all your students are left
wing nut jobs like you. You seriously need to lose some weight.
Others were highly personal and reflected personal knowledge about the teacher’s
circumstances:
What the fuck did you think you were doing to take a couple of days off for your grandmother’s funeral
when we had an assignment due?
Under the veil of anonymous feedback students appeared to have license to express overtly
racist, ageist, sexist and homophobic insults with impunity: ‘I’d do her. Some racist comments
were expressed as allegations, or exhortations for teachers to be more Australian but others
were hateful:
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 9
She is a fucking wog who needs to stop shopping at Kmart… you fat bitch.
Insulting comments were made about people’s age (either too young or old to teach) and
these were frequently gender specific:
The lecturer is like a lady who lives alone and has a cat.
Stupid old woman needs a good fucking.
Respondents who identified as non-binary or LGBTQI + noted that their sexuality was a source
of derision at times. Homophobic insults were also cited by others as examples of non-constructive
anonymous feedback:
Why don’t you just come out of the closet? I pity your wife and children.
Projection and blame
Arguably all the examples of non-constructive feedback were irrelevant and unrelated to the
quality of teaching and learning. Some respondents spoke of students utilising feedback to
express grievances about what they did not like but beyond the teachers’ control. For example,
that students stated they had “wasted their money’, did not like the class size, or thought
courses should be run by clinicians rather than academics. One respondent explained how
students would sometimes externalise their behaviour:
Another common theme is externalising e.g. “I was made to buy a text-book and I didn’t use it” - like it’s
the staff member’s fault they didn’t open it?
Most respondents reported being aware that some disgruntled or aggrieved students pro-
jected their grievances and that students would never make similar statements to their face.
Several noted that students sometimes colluded in orchestrating a barrage of negative comments
and reported the perception that some students tried to ‘destroy’ them. The sub-theme of
‘catastrophising and totalising feedback’ was particularly prevalent in this theme with large
numbers of students being reported as expressing in feedback that the content was ‘irrelevant’,
‘unnecessary’ or ‘uninteresting’; the course ‘too hard’, ‘long’ or ‘complex’; or assessments simply
‘wrong’. Reports of feedback included but were not limited to: ‘I learned nothing’, ‘I didn’t know
what to do’, ‘I taught myself’ or more commonly that the ineptitude or the vindictiveness of
the tutor led to their failure:
That fucking dyke bitch failed me she’s fucking useless that’s why I failed.
The most common examples of projection and blame raised by respondents were also
examples of false or misleading statements, which were likely tendered as examples because
of the injustice of these false statements remaining on the semi-public record (often in direct
contradiction of other feedback). Such projected and false statements were often about the
person ‘never replying’ or ‘ignoring emails’, ‘not returning to work on time’, and not being explicit
about course requirements. It was clear that many students were not happy with their grades
or remark and tended to project blame onto teaching staff:
The teachers in this course are racist because all the Asian students get low grades.
Threats of retribution and calls for punishment
It is clear that some students blame teaching staff for their failures or problems that have little
to do with the performance of the teacher being evaluated. Many respondents (n > 50) reported
being told they should be: sacked. These were typically part of a totalising and catastrophizing
discourse whereby the student reported that everything was awful and in response to the
10 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
question ‘How can this topic, course be improved?’ the response was to: sack the teacher. Some
respondents elaborated on the dynamics that led to such ‘feedback’:
A student (who was easily identifiable) who said I should be sacked because I wouldn’t assist him by
printing hundreds of pages of material for him. The same student, misunderstanding Socratic method
teaching, claimed that I deliberately asked him questions that I knew he didn’t know the answers to
(apparently presuming that I could read his mind).
Variations on demands for people to be sacked were exhortations that the teacher should
resign, not practice in their field, that they need retraining, that they are awful or unsuitable,
that the university should be embarrassed, that the teacher should not teach that subject, or
that they should be replaced. These were sometimes made with threats that the student would
withdraw if the teacher continued. One reported that students had threatened legal action or
going to the media because they did not like the grade they received.:
You’re fake you act sincere, but in reality you’re a phony, a hypocrite, double-dealing and pretentious. To
be honest you are the worst tutor that I have come across. No likes to deal with a two face. Stop teaching
your embarrassing yourself. Quit while you’re ahead. I hope you get fired soon. Why did you take the job
your clearly not capable? Why don’t you just resign?
Some threats were considerably more menacing. One reported that a student had written:
I’d like to shove a broom up [the lecturer’s] arse and another that: she should be stabbed with a
pitchfork. Some of these threats were puerile: ‘X should shut up and die’ or ‘If I was X, I would
jump off the tallest building and kill myself if I was that dumb’. However, threats such as this
one to watch out were couched in vitriolic diatribes:
This bitch should be fired immediately. Why is someone this ugly allowed to teach? She better be careful
I never see her in the car park. She needs to get a better fashion pick. Her clothes are hideous.
Discussion
This research aimed to establish the occurrence and type of non-constructive anonymous narrative
comments in SET in Australian universities. Staff across Australian universities shared a vast array
of feedback from students. This was able to be categorised as either-or combinations of insult,
defamatory statements, and a plethora of words or phrases which apportioned blame, criticism,
accusation and threat. That many respondents directly quoted or copied and pasted from SET they
had received was a surprise to the research team. However, this might also be in part due to how
readily at hand these data are in this relatively new era of online teaching and administration.
The primary limitations of this research relate to the snowballing method of recruitment and
the diversity of experiences in Australian teaching staff may not have been adequately captured.
The researchers were health professionals and by and large engaged with other health profes-
sionals although at least one third of respondents were not health professionals. The majority of
respondents were women which could explain the clearly gendered examples of non-constructive
feedback. However the findings echo the Heffernan (2021) review that argued student surveys
were flawed, prejudiced against those being assessed and also included increasingly abusive
comments directed mostly towards women and marginalised groups. There is also likely to be
self-selection bias in the non-probability sampling (Bethlehem 2010) meaning that although the
majority of people in this sample reported receiving non-constructive feedback and also found
it offensive or distressing, these findings cannot be extrapolated to all academics in Australia.
Few recent studies have explicitly examined the content of anonymised SET. Mowatt (2019)
has provided one of very few published reflections on the experience of receiving SET (over
12 years teaching) and described it as a form of ‘racialised intellectual violence’. Mowatt (2019)
noted that men of colour consistently receive the lowest ratings in SET and provided examples
of non-constructive feedback. Dunegan and Hrivnak (2003, 283) have noted that it is rare for
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 11
teacher evaluations to be shared with students who receive virtually no feedback about the
outcomes of SET which potentially leads to ‘mindless teaching evaluations’. However, mindless
and invalid SET (which might be addressed by sharing feedback liberally with students) is
unlikely to address the problem of some students purposefully intending to hurt and defame.
Mowatt (2019) clearly articulated the purpose of the comments routinely received: ‘They serve
a purpose - for my removal’. Mowatt further asserts (and we are in agreement) that it is naïve
to consider that students are unaware of the importance that administrators hold anonymised
feedback. The respondents of this survey seem to be well aware that whilst it might not
advantage individual students directly to malign or defame academic teaching staff there
appeared to be quite clear motives to punish, malign or hurt academics. Anonymous feedback
can impact on teaching staff emotionally and professionally. This will be explored in other
papers arising from this project.
Further research should explore the current prevalence of non-constructive feedback and
identify if the prevalence of non-constructive comments has increased over time. In our sample,
examples of non-constructive feedback were readily recalled by respondents as were clearly
defamatory statements, which suggests possible negative impacts on their wellbeing. Some
respondents stated that they had not received negative comments for years, and this may
reflect professional development career progression and reduction in teaching responsibilities
or accommodations made in response to, or in anticipation of, potential wounding comments.
At best the examples we have provided suggest any associated numerical rating of teachers
associated with non-constructive comments ought to be considered invalid. However, it appears
that even if written comments are redacted in some way that numerical ratings are preserved.
The findings from this survey appear at odds with Tucker’s (2014) review of feedback at one
Australian university in 2010 which found few examples of offensive feedback. Tucker did not
provide verbatim examples of non-constructive feedback as we have done. However, it can be
readily inferred that this sizeable sample of academics in this sample had at hand many exam-
ples of offensive non-constructive comments. It is likely that the findings from this survey reflect
an acceleration of a trend towards de-individuation (Diener 1977) and antisocial behaviour in
some students.
At the time this survey was deployed the majority of Australian universities were teaching
online due to the COVID-19 pandemic which had wide reaching impacts on students and staff.
Universities shed a large number of largely casual workers and the public discourse supported
by Government policy was that the value of universities was primarily about delivering ‘job-ready
graduates’ reinforcing a view of students as customers (Lee, Nasrawi et al. 2021). At the same
time, the experience and impact of ‘cyber-bullying’ (which some of the examples of
non-constructive feedback clearly reflect) has increased in public awareness (Jenaro, Flores and
Frías 2018) and arguably has become a common experience. There are now concerted efforts
to understand and reign in ‘cyber-bullying’ in workplaces (Herron 2021) and to hold social media
conglomerates to account (Ullmann 2021). However, it appears that universities (at least in
Australia) are one of the last remaining bastions that allow and enable students to say anything,
regardless of veracity or impact, about their teachers with impunity.
We were shocked by the examples of feedback provided. The quantity of vitriol, personalised,
offensive and hateful comments was not expected and led to some collective reflection about
the personal impacts of reading anonymous feedback of this nature even when not about
oneself personally. The majority of respondents (88%) noted that SET comments were circulated
to others beyond their immediate supervisor. While many non-constructive examples were
superficial, absurd, irrelevant and unrelated, many were also defamatory and hateful. If such
comments took the form of graffiti, they would be quickly removed in the interest of good
taste and, if published in a public sphere about named individuals, might be considered libellous.
Jones, Gaffney-Rhys and Jones (2014), discussing the risks of publishing SET data in the
United Kingdom, noted that students are afforded protection by making anonymous comments
12 R. LAKEMAN ETAL.
and expressing opinions, but the publication of statements which are untrue and lead to adverse
consequences for individuals is potentially libellous. It is the anonymity and protection this SET
process affords which allows, enables and possibly encourages these non-constructive comments
about an academic’s teaching. It is hard to justify continuing to enable students to undertake
SET anonymously and it is unclear what of value would be lost if students were to provide
potentially identifiable feedback.
Conclusion
Our findings evidence the nature of insulting and offensive commentary collected through
electronic student evaluation of teaching in Australian universities. Although the research has
been conducted in one country, the findings are consistent with concerns about the validity
and usefulness of student evaluation that have been widely canvassed. What has been given
less considered attention is the use of online student evaluation of teaching as a platform to
harass, offend and, at times, menace teachers in higher education. Whether the threshold has
been reached for this behaviour to be considered abuse remains to be established. This is
particularly relevant when the commentary is personalised and clearly intends to cause harm
or hurt. We contend action is required to assure the accountability and workplace safety of
these systems and to curb increasing incivility in higher education.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Funding
This research received no grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
Notes on contributor
Richard Lakeman is an Associate Professor at Southern Cross University and Coordinator of SCU Online Mental
Health Programmes. He is a Mental Health Nurse, psychotherapist and fellow of the Australian College of Mental
Health Nursing.
Marie Hutchinson is a Professor in Nursing at the Faculty of Health, Southern Cross University.
Megan Lee is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Psychology at Bond University and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in
Education at Southern Cross University. Megan has just submitted her PhD in Psychology and is a member of
the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Australasian Psychological Society (APS).
Debbie Massey’s research is in the area of patient safety, patient deterioration and teaching and learning. Deb
works as an Associate Professor at Southern Cross University and as an intensive care nurse.
Dima Nasrawi is Lecturer in Nursing at Southern Cross University and a PhD student at Griffith University. She
is a Cardiac Nurse and a member of the Australian Cardiac Rehabilitation Association.
Jann Fielden is a Casual Lecturer and Academic Integrity Officer at Southern Cross University.
ORCID
Richard Lakeman http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4304-5431
Marie Hutchinson http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0025-2681
Megan Lee http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7531-5312
Debbie Massey http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0466-1960
Jann Fielden http://orcid.org/0000-0003-0084-0838
ASSESSMENT & EVALUATION IN HIGHER EDUCATION 13
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