Faculty question influence, relevance of out-of-date course evaluations
December 4, 2006 —
With the end of the semester here, the inevitable string of exams and professor evaluations is here as well. While the purpose of exams seems both objective and obvious, the evaluations professors hand out to students at the end of the course elicit a greater debate.
On the surface, the purpose of the evaluations is to improve the education students receive by providing professors critical feedback on their courses and methods of teaching them. However, the actual usefulness of these evaluations has been debated by both faculty and students, making the forms a hot-button issue among many at the university level.
One such step that SVSU has taken is to encourage professors to give students in their classes course evaluation forms at the end of the semester. The evaluations are intended to give students the chance to reflect on their instructor's performance; however, those reflections vary as some students take the forms seriously while others do not. Communication Professor Rob Drew has noticed this phenomenon.
"The ones that are depressing are the ones that are just full of misspellings and things like that," he joked. "They make you think, 'How could this kid be evaluating me? He can't spell.'"
Comments like those Drew refers to are apparently not unusual, and the question of the evaluations' usefulness is frequently brought up by faculty members. Psychology professor Larry Hatcher is the chair of a committee that has been tasked by the Faculty Association to reevaluate and potentially revise the course evaluations. He said the usefulness of the evaluations was a fundamental criticism of the faculty.
"One of the most common complaints from faculty is that the information they get from the instructor course evaluation form is not terribly useful to them in helping them improve their courses," he said. "They can look at the numbers, but the numbers don't tell them what's wrong with their course and how they can make it better. They look at the written comments, and some of the written comments are helpful, but a lot of them are not."
Evaluations impact teaching
However, usefulness is not the only criticism faculty have made of the student evaluations. English professor Paul Munn mentioned that some faculty believe the quality of learning in the classroom and positive student evaluations do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
"A lot of my colleagues are skeptical that the professors that are promoting the most learning may be getting lower scores," he said. "Students don't like total Mickey Mouse courses, so [classes that are too easy] will come through as a total waste of time. Students as a whole seem to like courses that challenge them just a bit, so they get As and Bs, not easily but with modest effort. So it seems to me a professor can get good scores by manipulating the system a little bit by being very nice and moderately challenging."
Munn also says, however, that much of the research does not support his opinion.
"The studies say I'm not necessarily right, though," he said. "They contradict my perceptions, so right now I'm ambivalent about course evaluations."
Hatcher said most of what he has read concentrated on the objective questions in course evaluations, with very little attention paid to the written portion. Most faculty argue that intelligently written comments are considerably more useful than the scores calculated from the objective questions.
"My concern is that the students who are motivated to make written comments are probably the students who had the strongest emotional feelings about the class," Hatcher said. "This makes me worried that the written comments that you're getting may not be representative of students in general."
Drew said that negative course evaluations may also have something to do with incompatible personalities of the professor and students.
"The trouble is that, at a certain point, it drops off in its usefulness because I really believe that, ultimately, no teacher can please every student," he said. "I don't think anybody is going to please everybody because teachers have different personalities and approaches, just like anybody else. We all have our limits."
Connections to tenure, promotion
Conflicts concerning the evaluations become a bit more complicated when one considers how student evaluations factor into faculty promotion and tenure. According to English professor and Faculty Association President Gary Thompson, student evaluations are given some degree of weight in the process of promotion. Exactly how much is hard to determine, but they are taken into consideration as stipulated in the faculty contract.
Thompson said that decisions regarding promotion and tenure are made by a group called the Professional Practices Committee (PPC). It is composed of six elected faculty and three appointed administration members. In order to be eligible for promotion, faculty must meet the following standards, which are categorized into three discrete areas: teaching effectiveness, scholarly and professional activity, and community and college service. According to Thompson, teaching effectiveness is most important when faculty members are up for consideration.
"It is the responsibility of the candidate for tenure and/or promotion to provide evidence of teaching effectiveness, which in pretty much all cases includes student evaluations," he said. "Student evaluations are a crucial part of the process, but they have to be interpreted carefully along with other data. Evaluation scores are generally lower for required courses than for elective courses and tend to be higher in specialized courses for majors than for, say, general education courses."
Hatcher says that how much weight that is (or should be) given to student evaluations is an issue that some faculty members contest. He says some faculty believe the majority is given to the evaluations and that some do not like the idea that the determination of their teaching abilities could lie in the hands of students.
Moreover, some students may not be aware of the role course evaluations play in determining a faculty member's eligibility for advancement and, as a result, may not take the end-of-semester forms very seriously.
Hatcher says he has heard many students question the point of the evaluations and that many believe they make no difference. However, he points out the opposite is the case.
"The truth is, committees do review these student evaluations and consider student evaluations as one piece of the puzzle in deciding how high one individual's teaching performance is," he said.
Thompson has had similar experiences with student perceptions of the evaluations.
"There's a sense that students sometimes don't fill the forms out seriously," he said. "I have sometimes seen evaluation forms come back with the same number filled out for all questions. These are likely to be discounted, but a form completed thoughtfully, with well-formulated statements in the blanks at the end, usually counts for more than the computed numbers."
Changes under consideration
As contentious as course evaluations appear to be, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are being revisited. The committee Hatcher chairs will soon be sending a survey to faculty members that asks them to review 25 dimensions of the class experience they think would be best suited to pose as questions on class evaluations. The faculty's feedback will be used to help modify the existing forms. Hatcher's committee has been working on the revision for nearly two years.
"It's been a fairly controversial topic for faculty," he said. "There are some faculty that feel we shouldn't be using student evaluations at all. And so we've had to have this conversation among the faculty as to whether this is a good thing and something we should continue using."