In-class course evaluations ditched for online surveys

BY JACOB SMILOVITZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 11, 2008

After more than 30 years of use, the University’s system of paper course and instructor evaluations is being replaced by an online evaluation set to debut this semester.

But while some have touted online evaluations as more efficient and eco-friendly, others are worried that students won't take the time to complete them.

Studies conducted at other universities revealed that participation rates for online evaluations were about 20 percentage points lower than their paper-based counterparts.

James Kulik, director of the Office of Evaluations and Examinations, said the possibility of a drop in participation rates is a “big concern” for University officials.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to get the word out to students that their opinions matter,” he said.

Sherry Liu, a junior in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, said she doesn't think students will participate in the online evaluations.

“People will definitely not do it, because there is no incentive at all,” she said.

LSA senior Cardin Collins said that while the evaluations serve a good purpose, students are less likely to fork up their own time to complete them.

“People just might not care to do it, unless they really have a strong conviction either for or against a particular instructor,” he said.

Kulik said that in the first test of the new system, which was implemented in an engineering class several years ago, response rates were “just about the same” online as on paper. Kulik said e-mail reminders had a positive impact on participation rates and may be used when the system goes live later this year.

But while questions remain about online participation rates, University officials are quick to point out that the online system will save paper — and money.

“With well over 500,000 course evaluation forms being processed by the Office of Evaluations and Examinations, I believe that is reason enough to make this change,” said Lester Monts, the University’s senior vice provost.

Kulik emphasized the positive green aspects of the shift.

“(The Office of Evaluations and Examinations) will print nothing starting this fall,” he said. “Just in terms of the amount of paper, the trees, this has a benefit.”

The move is also aimed at cutting the costs involved with administering and organizing paper evaluations.

“With that amount of paper, there are just so many people that have to be involved in distributing and collecting and sorting and returning by campus mail,” Kulik said. “There is just a lot of clerical work involved.”

But keeping student involvement high is most important, officials say. University leaders are counting on a communications rollout to generate enough buzz to get students participating.

The Provost’s office has created a ten-person communication team charged with informing students about the importance of the evaluations.

Monts said he believes the team will be able to get students involved.

“We have engaged professionals in the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the Marketing and Communications Office to help craft a communications plan that stresses the importance of course evaluations to students and faculty,” he said. “Given their effectiveness on past educational initiatives, I believe we will have an effective rollout of this new process.”

Kulik said the University has no plans to offer any “external rewards and punishments” to students who participate in the evaluations — at least not at first.

LSA senior John Pitcher said incentives would be the only way to get students involved.

“I do think there will be a reduction (in participation), as long as they don’t have something in place where it would count toward their participation in class or something like that,” he said.

College of Engineering Prof. Michael Thouless, a member of the task force and the vice chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the faculty’s executive governing body, said he doesn’t think the University should use incentives.

“If people want participation rates to go up, then obviously they can encourage students to fill in the forms,” he said.

All schools within the University except for the Business School, Medical School and the School of Dentistry use the teacher evaluation system developed by the Office of Evaluations and Examinations.