Pilot program puts course evals online
The administration will offer course evaluations electronically beginning this spring as part of a one-year pilot program that hopes to improve student feedback in the evaluations.
During the last week of classes at the end of every semester, students fill out course evaluations. The evaluations prompt students with questions to which they respond by filling in bubble answers. Each question is followed by a space for students to elaborate with a write-in section. While the College cannot mandate and ensure that each student will fill out all of his or her evaluations, there is incentive for students to complete the online evaluations: grades will be held two weeks for those students who do not complete their evaluations. Also, faculty members may see their evaluations only when they have submitted their grades to the Registrar, providing enticement for professors to turn in their grades on time.
Course evaluations are no small issue to the faculty of the College. Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry Whitney King, who is also head of the Course Evaluations Committee, said, "Course evaluations are taken very seriously as we evaluate faculty teaching. It is probably one of--if not the most--important aspect...as a faculty member is considered for promotion, tenure and merit. So, it's important. It is at times anxiety-producing on the part of the faculty because it's a major evaluation."
Faculty members have noticed a decline in the quality of the narrative in recent years--the write-in portion--of the evaluations. Many find this trend to be particularly upsetting given the importance of these evaluations; the evaluations cannot only provide valuable critical feedback on their courses and their teaching methods, but the evaluations are also of vital importance to their careers on the Hill.
"We've seen a real drop off in the narrative part that the students are writing. Students tend to fill in the bubbles and hand [the course evaluation] in. So we've lost the narrative, [which] I think, is really the most important piece because it fills in the 'why,'" King said.
For Katie Unsworth '10, a member of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC), holding course evaluations online will be very valuable. She said she takes a lot of time to think about and fill out her evaluations and sometimes feels pressure in class to rush to finish up her writing. Online course evaluations will allow her to evaluate her classes at her own pace.
Sarah Trankle '12 disagrees. "I think it's really efficient how it is now to have everyone do [the evaluations] at the same time in an allotted time period." She said she thinks holding evaluations online might decrease student response rate.
Though the Committee found fault with both the questions asked and the presentation of the current evaluations, the faculty as a whole asked that the Committee tackle one issue at a time in order to isolate what works and what doesn't in improving the forms. Thus, the Committee proposed simply making the evaluations electronic for now. Most of the other factors will remain consistent with what students have seen in the past.
In an April 9 memo to the faculty from the Committee entitled "Course Evaluations for spring 2010" the Committee said: "We will be using the same evaluation form we have used for the past decade. The new process differs in that: a) responses will be entered electronically, not via pencil on paper; b) students will be able to complete each evaluation at a time and place of their choice between 8 a.m. on Monday, May 3 and 5 p.m. on Friday, May 7; c) faculty will have a chance...to add up to two optional questions for their students in each course to answer; and d) results will be available shortly after the grade submission deadline."
Point "c," the ability to add up to two optional questions is popular among many faculty members. In a test-run during the 2008-09 academic year, where some faculty members volunteered to try course evaluations online in addition to the paper, some responses brought in valuable feedback. The test-run also saw an increased narrative response from student participants. These questions can be tailored to fit the particular course, textbook or subject matter for example that the professor is interested in learning more about. That faculty member will be the only person to see the questions. "It's a really interesting way for the faculty to get feedback with no risk," King said.
Chris Hoder '12 took part in the online test-run last year for his professors who elected to have them. "I thought that because they allowed the teachers to add questions it directed the student to give better additional feedback."
"We want to re-engage the students on what they liked and what they didn't like [in a course] and why. And that comes from the writing part. So what we're hoping is that the electronic venue will encourage and expand the student narrative," King said. He noted that the online course evaluations offered in addition to the hand-written evaluations--a test program in the 2008-09 academic year--did, for the most part, yield more of a narrative response than the hand-written evaluations seemed to generate. These were voluntary evaluations available only in classes of professors who elected to provide the electronic test program. This allowed the Committee to figure out many of the technical aspects of holding course evaluations online.
Another aspect of holding evaluations online is that it provides a deeper level of anonymity for students. "Electronic evaluation provides anonymity for students whereas the handwritten one does not," King said. Although the personal information at the heading of the course evaluations is self-declared and do not ask for student names, it is possible for professors to recognize students' handwriting on the paper forms. The online evaluations will be completely detached from student names.
They will also be less-time consuming to process, take up less space, be available to the faculty much more quickly--it currently takes six to eight weeks for professors to get their paper evaluations back--and, as King said, will be more secure filed electronically than as hard copy in a file box on campus.
Some faculty members were skeptical about how some students might handle the evaluations outside of classroom, suggesting that some may engage in 'evaluation parties,' potentially involving alcohol and irresponsible completion of the forms. In response to these concerns, there will be a time-stamp on the submitted evaluation in case there are suspicions of foul play. Once a student submits his or her evaluation, it cannot be re-accessed. "You can't go back because we don't know who you are," King said. The system breaks the link between the students' name and his or her evaluations.