Professors weigh importance of evaluation forms

About 148,000 evaluations were processed for fall semester.

Roy Aker

Tyler Johnson wrote thoughtful responses on the four Student Rating of Teaching forms he filled out this spring.

But he noticed other University of Minnesota students turn the forms in blank, mostly in larger lecture-style classes.

“Being that it’s the only real way for students to voice their opinions of faculty, I think it’s important to actually write something useful,” the business and marketing education junior said.

SRT forms, the most widely used evaluations at the University, are usually filled out by students during their final weeks of classes and are used in the tenure and promotion process.

About 148,000 forms were scanned by the Office of Measurement Services during fall 2012, representing more than 6,500 courses on the Twin Cities campus alone.

Thomas Dohm, OMS director, said three-quarters of the paper-version SRTs are filled out completely by students, but online evaluations have a much lower percentage.

The evaluations include student release questions at the end that ask about course load and value of assignments. Various students and groups, including the Minnesota Student Association and student representatives to the Board of Regents, have pushed for more transparency in releasing that data.

Professors currently have the right to decide whether to release that section to students — only about 10 percent do.

But Johnson said he thinks the website Rate My Professors is just as useful as SRT forms.

Anthropology professor William Beeman disagrees.

“Anybody who picked their classes by going on to that site exclusively would be rather foolish,” Beeman said.

Johnson said he “knows that some students use the site to just complain,” but students don’t have any other way to judge a class before registering.

“It’s a calculated decision,” Johnson said.

‘Not a popularity contest’

While still an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 1968, Beeman said he designed the first faculty evaluation form ever used for tenure decisions.

Beeman, now the chair of the University’s Department of Anthropology, said he uses similar forms regularly to gauge the performance of both himself and other professors in the department.

Political science professor Larry Jacobs pays close attention to the written comments.

He said most students write that the course contains too much reading. But he said he pushes his students and that increased reading is part of the transition into college.

“For me, it’s never been a popularity contest,” Jacobs said. “The best outcome for me is when a student comes out of a class saying, ‘You know, I’ve learned a lot.’”

Beeman, who receives SRT forms for each professor in his department, said the forms are used in decisions of tenure, promotions and awards.

He noted that faculty research activities and accomplishments also are taken into account.

Chemistry professor Christopher Cramer said “it’s a little bit of a pity” that the forms are used in the promotion and tenure process.

He said it may create poor incentives to “teach to get good evaluations” and that the process may be connected to the grade inflation curve that started in the 1970s.

The data is still useful, Cramer said, but shouldn’t necessarily be tied to salary and promotions.

“It’s a risky enterprise,” he said.