I’m all Ears

It is course evaluation time in the College, that time of the semester when students provide us feedback on their classroom experience. Contrary to popular belief, we care about them. Not only do they matter in pay and promotion decisions, teaching a class is an emotional experience. You are asked to be center stage thirty times over fifteen weeks, always be on top of your game and imprint every student with your wisdom so that they will leave your course understanding the world as you see it. Bad student evaluations for a faculty member are like bad theater reviews for actors: They sting. I have never met a professor who was indifferent about their student evaluations. Unwilling to accept criticism, yes: Immune to the slings and arrows of student feedback? Egoless in the glow of rave reviews? Never. Trust me, they always matter.

This is why it is both frustrating and surprising that so few students take the time to give faculty any feedback. Poor student participation in the evaluation process was a major topic at our college-wide faculty meeting on Friday. Since going to on-line evaluations, the percent of students who complete an evaluation has hovered at around just twenty percent. Faculty rightly question whether it is fair to draw any conclusions about their performance when such a small percent of students provide input. Is a failure to fill out an evaluation a sign of satisfaction, indifference or disgust? Frankly, if these response rates don’t improve, all students risk loosing a meaningful way to influence their college experience.

Providing people with good, honest, developmental feedback is hard. Every manager struggles to do this. It isn’t fun. It takes lots of time. It requires that you know a lot about their performance and can describe to them in words they understand how they can improve.
Students are an important part of the evaluation process because they are the only people who see the professor in action every day. They are in the best position to provide observations on the faculty member’s behavior, day in and day out. This is critical to providing good feedback. Organizations that fail to provide good developmental feedback fail to improve. A failure to improve is unacceptable to me. If we can’t get the kind of feedback we need from students, we are going to have to get it from some other source.

But before we shut students out of the process, I want suggestions on how to improve response rates and get higher quality data from students on faculty performance in class. Some have suggested making evaluations mandatory. This will improve the number of students who fill out the form, but not necessarily the quality of the information we receive (e.g. mindless filling out of the form). Prizes or group incentives are likely to produce similar results. I am inclined to include student training on evaluations in our Cornerstone class to emphasize their importance and improve the quality of information we receive. I am also inclined to provide rewards to faculty who get the most students to meaningfully respond. What I am looking for are policies that will promote a culture of student engagement and meaningful dialogue about the classroom experience. If you have suggestions here, like my big coffee cup says: I’m all ears.

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7 thoughts on “I’m all Ears

  1. This had great examples. Some of the students I have spoken with are afraid that the evaluation will affect their grade. They do not know that the evaluator does not get access to the comments or overall scores until after the grades are given. I really liked the examples. See you around campus!

  2. This is really true. Evaluations are important to any teacher. It would be best if evaluators can provide unique comments. This way, they can be able to help teachers improve their way of teaching thus improving the results of student’s learning.

  3. An informal survey of others in the room confirmed my thoughts about the SPI:

    – It’s too long / many choices
    – Students only encounter them when they are logging into MyUCF to do something else.

    With this combination students are asked to derail their tasks to spend 5-10 minutes per class to fill out a quality survey. While this amount of time is insignificant compared to how much professors give us, it not planned and therefore students are already in a bad mood when it pops up on MyUCF.

    My suggestions are:
    – Allot time in class to fill out the surveys (a step backward, but alas)
    – Or implement a quicker survey, ala net promoter score: http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2006-01-29/would-you-recommend-us

  4. I believe that a good start for soliciting their participation is stressing the important of these evaluations in class. I tell my students that every comment is read and taken into serious consideration. One technique that I’ve been using in the classroom is providing my students a midterm peer evaluation to let them know that I’m not only hearing them but am listening to them as well (there’s a big difference between hearing and listening). This unofficial midterm peer evaluation helps keep me honest and provides a chance to “change course” if necessary. Lets face it, by the end of the semester, it’s just too late. I tell them that the official evaluation is just as important as my unofficial one. By the way, this unofficial midterm peer eval. suggestion was presented to me by several of the Department of Management faculty. We know how to manage people! 😉

  5. Along the lines of Tim, I believe that the form is way too long. As is with most surveys, there are probably some question that are not necessary. Make one that gets the most important information and if there is anything else that they want to say, they’ll leave it in the comments.

    I’ll be honest that I think I’ve only answered all of them one or two semesters in my 6 completed semesters. I only did that because they are so long and it doesn’t seem as though what we say makes a difference. If you could show students that what they say actually matters, they would be more likely to give you more results and better results.

    • Hi Clayton:

      I do understand the point about students wanting to see the impact of the evaluations. This is tricky because they involve personnel decisions, not all of which can or should be made public. I will need to think about striking the right balance here..

  6. Dr. Jarley,

    The department’s website has almost no information about faculty. In most cases, there is no CV uploaded in faculties’ webpages. This can have to serious negative effects:

    First, for current students, who will find knowing and communicating with professors harder and also insufficiency of school spirit because they have no good personal page on their school website.

    Second, for good potential PhD students who give up applying to the school because they can’t find enough information about faculty. A malfunctioning website can also leave a general negative impression on viewers.

    Thanks for your openness to students’ ideas and your consideration,

    Saeed

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