The course and instructor evaluation forms students grudgingly fill out at the end of every semester are an important part of the education experience for professors and instructors.
“Teaching doesn’t come as a natural gift to everyone. Some college teachers have never taught before they start teaching at the university,” said Senior Director of the Measurement and Research Center Jim Degnan. “They’re smart. They really want to do well, but they need some coaching.
“The teaching improvement process is really important to us,” Degnan said.
Pamela Barnett, director of the Teaching and Learning Center, works with faculty and graduate students, sharing the latest research on how people learn and what teaching practices are most effective.
“When it comes to student evaluations, some faculty will come here after they get them back, and they want to improve their teaching or improve their courses,” Barnett said.
“Sometimes, they’ll come here with their evaluations. We’ll talk through suggestions or criticisms, and we’ll kind of brainstorm together about things they might try and the best teaching practices to respond to the comments,” she said.
The Measurement and Research Center also has an oversight committee.
“We have an oversight committee, which has a student representative on it. That’s a big issue: what’s the student’s input on it?” Degnan said.
“I often make changes to a course after receiving written comments from students. When I first started teaching, students would write that I talked too fast and tried to do too much in a single session, and I really took that to heart,” music professor Michael Klein said. “Sometimes students will write that the textbook isn’t helpful, etc. And if enough students seem to share that opinion, I’ll make a change.”
Degnan said “some professors think it’s just a popularity contest.”
“That’s a hard concept for people to overcome because some students understand that even if they did not do well in a class, the course was still taught well,” Degnan said.
Brittani Dunning, a sophomore advertising major, said she has complained numerous times about professors on evaluations.
Dunning said she felt uncomfortable in her Intellectual Heritage II class because of her professor’s “left-wing political beliefs.”
“I had often thought about dropping the class and even had to leave class early once because I was so infuriated,” she said. “I basically faked a liberal opinion for all of my assignments in fear of being unfairly graded, just as those in class with opposing beliefs were unfairly treated when they expressed their opinions during discussion.”
Dunning said her issue isn’t with professors’ views or beliefs but with the evaluations and whether or not they have any impact.
“My main concern is not that there are professors like this on campus, but the fact that the departments are either not taking the evaluations seriously, or they are being intercepted by the professors,” she said.
After students fill out their evaluations, the froms are brought to the Measurement and Research Center.
“[The evaluations] are scanned and put into a data file, then constructed into a report for each faculty member that they can access through TUportal,” Degnan said.
The report consists of ratings for each of the categories on the evaluation form and the comments students write on the back of the form.
“Two things happen. They put all the data into a report to show how the average student responds on each item and the narrative comments. Then, they create a report that goes back to the departments and to the individual faculty members,” Barnett said.
“I find faculty are really interested in the narrative comments, what students actually write,” Barnett said.
“I always read the evaluations carefully as soon as I get them,” Klein said. “Although the hard data is interesting, I’m usually more focused on the written comments. When students don’t write something for the questions requesting special commentary, it’s not as helpful to me.”
Klein said professors usually do not receive the reports for one to two months after the course is completed.
“This is a frustration for many faculty. Before the evaluations became computerized, we would receive them as soon as the grades were turned in,” Klein said. “Now, we don’t receive the evaluations until six or seven weeks after the semester is over. By that time, it’s hard to make meaningful adjustments to a course.”
Barnett said faculty discussions on evaluations are not uncommon.
“It’s not like our doors are being knocked down with professors who want to talk about teaching evaluations, but it’s definitely a conversation we have here,” Barnett said.
“People will come to talk about teaching in general and will sometimes say, ‘Well, a student said this on my teaching evaluation, maybe this strategy you’re talking about would be good for that.’ So even if they don’t come because of the evaluation, they read them and have them in mind,” Barnett said.
She added when professors go to programs and consultations, they discuss issues that are written on student evaluation forms.
“[Faculty] get to see how their scores stand up against their department, the university and the course level,” Degnan said. “They also get all the comments you fill out. We make no attempt to edit them at all. It’s not meant to be punitive. It’s really guided to help the teachers with the course.”
Instructors also fill out a form that has 20 questions about the types of tools they used in their courses.
“Does it work? I think it does. I don’t think we’ll win any Nobel prizes with this thing, but I think that every year ratings tend to go up, and that’s a good thing,” Degnan said.
Degnan said improvement is the focus.
“Some people are just naturally gifted at teaching, and they’ll get very high ratings, but to me, the person who is very conscientious and gets low ratings but sees that and wants to improve, that’s the person who needs to be rewarded in some way, even if it’s just an acknowledgment from someone in authority that says, ‘You’ve really come a long way,’” he said.
Katherine Nobles, a freshman education major, said she is completely honest on her course evaluations.
“I think it’d be beneficial to post the comments somewhere so that students can see how others have evaluated the class to see if they’d be interested in taking it, too,” Nobles said.
Students do not have access to the majority of faculty evaluations. However, the Honors Program has a separate evaluation, in addition to the university-wide evaluations that honors students fill out.
“It’s not something I take lightly, but I’m not sure everyone takes it as seriously,” Degnan said. “The student voice is extraordinarily important, and we try to encourage students to take [evaluations] thoughtfully because it really does matter.”
Valerie Rubinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.