University looks to revamp student evaluations

Students’ opinions on evaluations factor into merit, pay, tenure and promotion decisions.

by Mitch Anderson

University mathematics professor Peter Olver has received quite a bit of student feedback in his 27 years of teaching at the University. His favorite comment, however, came from a student who offered no constructive criticism at all.

“I had one guy who wrote on the comment section of his student evaluation, ‘What a wonderful class. I sat next to the girl of my dreams, and now we’re dating each other,’ ” Olver said. “I got all excellent marks on that evaluation.”

While not all students take the course evaluations handed out by instructors at the end of each semester seriously, some University officials do.

In a presentation given before the Board of Regents last month, senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Craig Swan outlined current student-evaluation trends.

The report, drawing from information gathered from student evaluations administered over the last six years, found a significant increase in how students rated their instructors’ overall teaching abilities.

“Almost all of the questions have positive upward trends and all of the statistically significant trends are in the right direction,” he said. “On average, evaluations are better now than they were six years ago.”

Instructor evaluations have been used at the University, in one form or another, since before Swan came 35 years ago.

The evaluations, Swan said, are currently administered during the last two weeks of the semester and are used to assess teaching for merit, pay, tenure and promotion. Plans are in the works, however, to expand evaluations so they help determine overall student learning.

Swan listed possible improvements to the evaluation process, such as online evaluations, questions that are more course-specific and mid-semester questionnaires in addition to the end-of-semester evaluations.

While administrators might find the student evaluations very helpful, not all instructors feel they are necessary.

Olver said he felt student evaluations were valuable to beginning instructors, but not so much for established professors.

“I think they’re very important in early stages of your career, less so once you figure out how things work,” he said. “I think it’s always important to pay attention to what your students are saying.”

Although he feels evaluations can be somewhat helpful now, Olver said he’d like to see feedback from students who are out in the real world or those who went on to graduate school.

“I want to know which courses really affected them, not necessarily the ones they gave good evaluations when they were in it,” he said. “But, I suppose (the current method) is better than some of these Web sites where you can put all sorts of scurrilous remarks about your professors.”

Some students have expressed concern over how seriously University officials take student evaluations into consideration when deciding which professors to promote and tenure.

Sophomore Muna Anazodo said she felt it was very important that students’ thoughts are heard by administration, even if not all students take the evaluations seriously.

“Some people may be less understanding – they might not like the subject and blame the teacher,” she said. “But if the majority of a class says the same thing, then there’s probably something to it.”

Swan said student comments represent only one of many factors the University takes into consideration when deciding which professors to promote and tenure.

“In a broad sense, strategic positioning is a commitment to excellence in everything we do, and teaching has to be an important part of that,” Swan said. “I think that commitment is there most of the time for most of the people, and we need to be sure that it’s there all the time for all the people. These evaluations are a way to gauge that.”