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.