About 700 faculty members are evaluated annually through course evaluation forms completed by students at the end of each semester’s class, which are then heavily relied on by superiors in examining one’s professional work.
The University of Rhode Island chose to switch from an in-house created Student Evaluation of Teacher form that professors were unhappy with due of low response rates. About five years ago, the university chose IDEA, a non-profit organization that administers the red and white forms students see every semester as they found the forms more effective in dissecting the pedagogy at URI.
The idea of the evaluation forms is simple: improve teaching through an understanding of students’ perceptions of their professors and their courses. All forms of teaching evaluations are aimed at helping faculty get better, however, it is not always that straightforward.
Through IDEA, professors are supposed to pick three to four goals provided by the company that detail what a specific course is aimed to reach by its completion. These goals are then taken into account when results are measured since not all questions asked in the forms apply to every class. Professors are encouraged to tell students these goals so they can best access their performance.
Students seem to be unaware how heavily weighted the evaluation forms they complete can affect a professor’s chance at a promotion or when they are up for tenure.
Junior communication studies major Kyle McIlmail was unaware how much weight students’ reviews can affect their professor’s careers.
“Every time I see them, I question is this even going to be looked at?” said McIlmail. “Most of the time, if I’m not having a good time with the professor throughout the semester there is no way I can rate them well, but as soon as [the form’s] in front of me, I do take it seriously hoping it betters them and their environment.”
Provost Donald DeHayes said his office, the deans and department chairs take these evaluations forms very seriously. “I encourage students to take it seriously, to spend a little bit more time to complete the evaluation as thoughtfully and effectively as you can,” he said.
Low response rates, inconsistencies and motives behind a student’s score are reasons that some believe basing a professor’s teaching off of evaluations is not effective.
“Sometimes they [evaluation forms] are given too much worth,” said Executive Director of URI’s American Association of University Professors Frank Annunziato. “Research shows that the best prediction for higher test scores is the perception of the grade the students are going to receive. If they think they’ll get a high grade, the better the test result for the professor.”
According to Annunziato, teaching is much more important in state universities and he is certain that faculty are interested in what students think of their work.
Annunziato said he receives about half a dozen cases a year of professors filing cases on decisions made that kept them from promotions or tenure. He said bad evaluation results will keep a professor from getting promotions, but good evaluation results does not always mean the professor will move ahead in their career, an inherent conundrum of the evaluation forms.
“It happens all the time, but I don’t blame the students for that,” said Annunziato. “I blame the faculty” for not telling students the forms’ worth. DeHayes and Annunziato said that low evaluation forms have kept professors from advancing in their careers.
Dean of Arts and Sciences Dr. Winifred Brownell said, “There are some professors who haven’t liked evaluation, not to this particular form, but I think it’s a constant struggle to figure out what would be fair and a good measure of student learning across many different disciplines and levels of education.”
“I would hope that students be honest, if somebody is doing an outstanding job it’s important to indicate that, and if a student is struggling it’s appropriate to indicate that too,” said Brownell.
The delay in receiving results is an aspect of IDEA that some feel is a negative consequence of the system. It takes over a semester for professors to get their scores back. The optional comments that students write on the bottom of the forms are never delivered to professors as a result of the university continuing with the paper format and not transferring to online.
“I would love to see it online and we need students help to make this work,” said DeHayes. “If we did this online the turn-around would be in days, not in months.” DeHayes said the university tried doing IDEA online for some semesters in the past, but the students response rate was so low that less than 50 percent of students were responding to email version of the forms. “We don’t know if the students responding were the most annoyed or the most happy after the course.” And this would not lead to accurate data.
Evaluation forms are only one of the ways professors are reviewed. Professors submit portfolios that include summaries of courses, students’ work, employment numbers of their students or highlighted academic work as a scholar. Committees review every professor’s teaching, research and services at the university along with the forms.
DeHayes said they are looking to find a company that will create an app that will administer the forms that could be completed on one’s smartphone. Completing the forms on a personal device in class would be ideal, said DeHayes but that there were no solid plans for when this would be instated.