Did the course have a clear purpose? What were the strengths and weaknesses? Was the teaching provided effective? These are all questions almost every student, and professor, have had to either regard or answer more than once.
Used as the basis of evaluating teaching effectiveness, student evaluations of professors serve as an important source of feedback for instructors, administrators, and department chairs. However, some may think students fill out evaluations according to their grades rather than their learning. Are students being honest and fair or do they reward instructors who grade easily over those who challenge them?
The evaluation process begins with the faculty who need an evaluation and arranging for their colleagues to administer them when the instructor is not there, Dr. Carolyn Steglich, professor of biology and President of the APSCUF Executive Committee said. They are then collected, given a cover sheet that documents how many people were there and how many forms were filled out, and sent to the scanning center. It is not until the class is over that the results are returned to the professors, Steglich said.
“Individuals who are probationary, which is in their first five years here, are required to do evaluations in all courses every year,” Steglich said. “At the end of their first five years, they can apply for tenure.”
Student evaluations are also required for those who are applying for promotion. Evaluations for all courses of the professor’s previous two years are required for a promotion application. These evaluations become part of the documentation for faculty’s teaching effectiveness. It’s not the only thing considered but it’s a big part of it, Steglich said.
Although there is a possibility of students not taking evaluations seriously, most professors and even students think they are important and worthwhile. Dr. Joseph Cali is a safety management professor and the chair. Cali has the responsibility of writing up the faculty who are up for review and also going through their portfolios. Cali says he takes the student evaluations very seriously and especially likes to read the comment section.
“I have found that even though a class is hard, students were honest,” Cali said. “If you are fair with your students and the class is hard but they are learning, the students are very fair in return. Sometimes if a student doesn’t personally like their professor, that’s where you’ll see some negative things.”
Associate professor of physical health and education and the department chair, Dr. Randy Nichols, also feels that students generally give fair and objective type feedback. Even though a professor might be more critical or stringent on certain things, students should be able determine if yes or no something happened by carefully reading the question, Nichols said.
“Student evaluations have nothing to do with the personality of the professor,” Nichols said. “It has to do with the instruction and delivery in the classroom.”
Steglich believes that many students are thoughtful and take the evaluations seriously, which ultimately makes them really useful. Professors know that students who are getting good grades will give better evaluations than students who are doing less well, Steglich said. However, students’ opinions are going to vary depending on what their goal of the course was.
“What is the student trying to get out of the class,” Steglich said. “If their goal is to sleep through class and get an easy A and I make them work too much, then they’re going to evaluate me differently. On the other hand if they think they really learned something even though they had to work hard, their opinion will differ.”
Derek Kemph, a senior secondary education major, is a student who takes his time to read the questions and gives an honest opinion. Kemph says it’s important to give feedback because if a student doesn’t think their professor is helping and teaching them in the way they should, someone higher up should know about it.
“Even if I received a good grade but I don’t feel like I should have or if the professor pushes students through, I give my honest opinion,” Kemph said.
If students can’t see how vital and significant students’ professors evaluations are, perhaps changes could be made to enforce it. Individuals do not get tenured or promoted based upon what student evaluations say, which makes their role even more valuable.
“I think there should be a way for students to reach out to higher authority or to have an opportunity to speak with the dean of their college if they have an issue with a professor,” Kemph said.
A senior criminal justice major, Natalie Carroll, said she fills out the evaluation just to be done with it. If the evaluations were shortened, condensed, and not so repetitive, she would take the survey more seriously, Carroll said. Students are not the only ones who think the evaluations could improve.
“I think if whoever is administering the evaluation should give a couple minutes and explain how important they are and tell the students to actually take some time and be fair,” Nichols said. “Let the students know how much the evaluations committees, department chairs, and department evaluation committees actually take them into account when looking at faculty performance.”
Nichols said in his department they have created a little committee of senior faculty members who have received strong student evaluations for years to help mentor the junior members who have had some areas of concern. Giving the junior members some technique and strategy tips could help them improve their weaknesses. The student evaluations are not meant to punish faculty members but rather to help them, Nichols said.
“Student input is very critical,” Cali said. “A professor needs to know if they are doing a good job, if the students are learning, if the course material is appropriate, and if they can do something different to help the students out.”
The open-ended comment section is an area of the evaluation that is highly consulted. Professors do take the time to read what the students have written and take it into consideration. This section helps serve as an indication of what went well, what they can improve on, and what the students did or did not like.
Nichols now uses a system in his class called ‘Read, Write, and Recall’ that came directly from a student’s suggestion. He use to just have students read and write about the assignment before a student wrote that it would help them if they also discussed in class what they were reading and writing about.
“If multiple people are commenting about the same thing, that’s clearly something that needs to be addressed,” Steglich said. “It’s not automatic that if a student says they thought I went too fast that I am going to slow down. We have a certain amount of territory that needs to be covered, but I can think of ways to try and make it easier for students to keep up.”
Cali said the evaluations are periodically redone by changing the format, questions, and the comments. Not only should the students make the evaluations significant but the professors as well. The evaluations provide feedback and also reinforcement of the professors’ performance. However, students need to decipher between a professors personality and their teaching ability. Penalizing a professor on an evaluation for being more demanding than others or rewarding those who grade easily is where the student evaluations prove to be unsuccessful.
“We use the information from those surveys to make life or death decisions with regard to people’s careers,” Steglich said. “We really depend on them being good evaluations that are honest and constructive.”