Have students evaluate lessons: a test for teachers?


An airport, in the boarding hall. At the exit of the toilets, in front of me, a small white box, a little worn, invites me to appreciate my user experience. Three options, no more, represented by three icons of different colors. I look at this box and I find myself thinking of the denunciation of the spirit of the times pronounced by Christophe Desjours , for whom everything in this world has become assessable and quantifiable, including work.

I meditate on the impact that a sum of judgments can have on people whose professional activity can constitute a central part of their identity. When and how do these evaluations fall on a person? How many effects can they have on a subjectivity and on a professional life?

On the plane, I think of my institution, which develops and systematizes the evaluation of courses by students, and of the teachers, whose identity seems affected by this evaluation. The question that underlies this article takes shape: what is the impact of the evaluation of courses by students on the higher education teacher and how does this interact with his professional identity?

Appreciate a performance

The evaluation of courses by students is a very widespread practice in higher education. Its implementation differs according to the institutions and the intentions of the hierarchies. In this diversity, it is however possible to identify two functions which are attributed to it, consciously or unconsciously:

  • professional development of teachers
  • the quality control of the teaching staff, which can be combined with other staff management tools by hierarchies.

Assessment for professional development implies a certain confidentiality of results, adaptability to the needs of teachers, the possibility of support promoting reflexivity on one’s professional activity, and even access to a training catalog.

In an evaluation for control purposes, the results are communicated to the hierarchies, the process is relatively rigid and does not offer resources likely to promote learning from the practices evaluated. These two functions of evaluation should however be understood as poles of a continuum on which to place practices rather than as exclusive categories. There may be some overlap.

These practices invite the students to appreciate the teaching by completing questionnaires, in order to channel, contain and stimulate their appreciations within certain limits. The assessment covers subjects such as the supports offered, the organization of teaching or oral communication. What should be appreciated by students, therefore, are performances that are supposed to promote learning. The results of the individual assessments are then quantified. What the teacher receives once the questionnaires have been processed is a summary of the students’ appreciations, or sometimes even the raw entirety of these evaluations. These questionnaires can also contain a section dedicated to comments.

Students’ assessments of their courses go through pre-established questionnaires. Image by Mudassar Iqbal / Pixabay

The teacher’s experience of these practices is dependent on the objective function of evaluation, but also on the subjective reading he has of them. Objective function and perception can correspond. However, it is not uncommon for the teacher to experience as falling under control a device thought out by the hierarchies with a view to professional development. Or, conversely, that a teacher reappropriates, for his own professional development, an evaluation system with a view to control.

Towards a new form of suffering?

These evaluation practices transform the role and the imagination attached to the student body. Teaching is one of those impossible jobs. The material with which the teacher works is endowed with speech, subjectivity, expectations and models from various experiences. With evaluation practices, this subject can become an accelerator of the professional training process but also, as soon as evaluation is used by hierarchies as a management tool, and according to teachers’ apprehension, constitute a potential danger for teachers.

The assessment is most often announced in advance to teachers and students. It then gets involved in the heart of the educational relationship, and makes it more complex. She makes this relationship a three-way relationship: teacher, students, hierarchy.

Students have expectations about teaching methods and teacher models that may not correspond to the image that the teacher has forged of himself and his practice, or even to the educational requirements that hierarchies may impose. . These differences can be a source of tension and find in the evaluation a place to materialize.

This teacher / student / hierarchy relationship can generate a new form of suffering for the faculty. We must understand suffering as immanent in work. It indicates the resistance of the real. It can be a vector of learning insofar as it can push to modify its practice and to supplement its knowledge. But it can also collapse the power to act and the sense of work.

Accelerators or double agents?

The phrase “students train me” sums up the idea expressed by some teachers and fits into this positive side of suffering. The higher education teacher rarely has training in pedagogy. To become a higher education teacher is to a certain extent to learn on the job and in a certain solitude. Assessment can convert students into professional teacher training partners. The assessment of their teaching is then understood by the teachers as a procedure making it possible to become aware of their performance in relation to the various dimensions assessed.

The formula “the students are neither benevolent nor competent to evaluate my teaching and yet the hierarchy uses them to manage my career” sums up another idea expressed by certain teachers met. For some faculty members, assessment unwittingly turns students into double agents in the service of a hierarchy that uses assessment as a tool for control and competition. In this case, the pedagogical relationship may lose, at least for the teacher, some of its characteristics of benevolence and trust.

Let us go further: is it possible to teach with mistrust and hostility, to teach a public perceived as a potential danger? Since the hierarchy is perceived as hostile, and that the students are considered as a link in a perverse system, don’t the mobilization in the activity and the dynamic of professional development risk exhaustion?


The evaluation of the teacher’s work has an impact on his professional development and a notable impact on the pedagogical relationship. But the evaluation of his performance goes into more depth. Gernet and Desjours insist on a point to which we must in fact be attentive: the work cannot be understood as a thing separate from the one who carries it out. Evaluation, by becoming systematic and institutionalized, affects the core of the teacher’s identity, which it indeed periodically questions.

It multiplies and tightens the stages of confirmations. This situation, relatively new for the teaching staff, gives rise to a kind of identity precariousness among teachers.

In the study on the way in which evaluation is experienced by the teachers we met, the concept of identity forms developed by Claude Dubar constitutes an interesting entry point. Claude Dubar defines identity forms as socially relevant and subjectively significant configurations that allow individuals to define themselves and others over a lifetime. His work offers four forms of identity that currently coexist in our societies: community, statutory, reflective and narrative.

When we listen to the teachers we have met, it seems that beyond the objective function attributed to the evaluation and the subjective perception by the teacher of this function, it is possible to identify two forms of identity which, on the one hand, determine the way in which the evaluation is experienced and integrated by the teacher:

  • the first form is the narrative form of the teacher identity. This form favors the narrative of conquests in order to fulfill ethical commitments. In this narrative form, evaluations are understood as opportunities in order to develop, as opportunities to build oneself and to best fulfill one’s commitments.
  • the second is the statutory form of the teaching identity. It is built around the valued and lasting status of teacher. The teacher is defined here massively in and by a hierarchical and instituted system. This form is more threatened by evaluation insofar as it weakens the status of the teacher, reconfigures the traditional pedagogical relationship and undermines the possibility of an acquired stability, and conquered, once and for all.

For those who are integrated into actions to set up evaluation systems, it is striking to note the little place given to the subjectivity of teachers, and more generally to the way in which evaluation today reconfigures the identity of the higher education teacher.

The evaluation indeed supposes major identity changes for some teachers and it is relevant to look at the crisis generated by its dissemination and generalization in higher education.

Author Bio: Juan Carlos Pita is a Doctor in Educational Sciences, educational advisor at the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland (HES-SO)