Pollack approves release of course evaluations with stipulations

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 1:40pm

In the fall of 2016, a new tool will be available for students choosing their courses and professors. Based on guidance from the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs and Central Student Government, University Provost Martha Pollack has approved the release of course evaluations for the upcoming fall semester.

The release of course evaluations has been a heavily debated topic at SACUA, Senate Assembly — the full faculty governing body — and CSG over the last academic year.

In an interview, Pollack said the initiative was largely student-driven.

“It was the students who really pushed to have it released,” Pollack said. “We asked student and faculty committees representing student government and faculty government to get together. They came up with what I thought were very thoughtful recommendations and a set of questions that are particularly tailored to student needs, and we’re gonna release it.”

Several policies will accompany the release, upon recommendation of two faculty and student committees. Only students with University e-mail accounts will be able to access and use the student evaluations, per committee request.

Several of the recommended policies also outline circumstances under which evaluations would not be released. Evaluations will only be released if one of two thresholds is met: A 50 percent participation rate or a minimum total of 30 evaluations per class. In addition, no evaluations for faculty during their first three years at the University will be released. Finally, if there are unforeseen and significant circumstances, faculty are able to opt out of releasing the data for that semester.

In 2014, the average response rate for course evaluation data was marked at slightly above 50 percent.

Courses for which the evaluations are not released will be marked with a code that will inform students why the data was not released. SACUA chair Silke-Marie Weineck, professor of comparative literature, said this will help flag faculty that are opting out time after time again.

“If there was a faculty member that abused the opt-out option — which I don’t think they will — it would show up pretty quickly because there would be opt-out after opt-out,” Weineck said. “I have no worries about that; I just want to protect faculty, because every once in a while, someone can have such a brutal semester and it wouldn’t be fair or representative.”

Angela Dillard, professor of Afroamerican and African Studies and associate dean for Undergraduate Studies in LSA, wrote in an e-mail interview that the release of evaluations is a way for students to learn more about the courses they are taking.

“Giving students access to more information about courses is a benefit,” Dillard wrote. “It could also begin to make students more accountable for both the quantity and quality of feedback they supply. We need to address this dimension of student evaluations and begin to shift the culture around them.”

The process of releasing the evaluations has spanned the course of this academic year. After University administrators came to SACUA with a proposal to release course evaluations in Fall 2015, the Faculty Senate voted in October 2015 to postpone the release of evaluations, opening debate on the issue up until the committees reached decisions earlier this semester.

Ultimately, the two committees were formed to balance out student concerns — Central Student Government leaders pushed heavily for release of the evaluations — and faculty ones.

In a November 2015 op-ed,  CSG President Cooper Charlton and his administration stated their goals of having evaluations ready for Fall 2016, saying “course evaluations were established for students, by students”.

LSA junior Anushka Sarkar, former CSG chief programming officer, served on both committees and said she was proud to have been part of the process.

“I am very proud of Cooper Charlton’s administration for pushing this out,” Sarkar said. “They had promised the student body at the beginning of their term that they would get this information available to students because they believed this would be incredibly important for students to have this data.”

Sarkar said alternatives students are using, such as Rate My Professors, aren’t allowing students to make informed decisions about their courses. She added that she has relied on alternative, biased information in the past to make choices about classes.

“Students are going to be very pleased to have this information available,” she said. “Now that students have access to a standardized and educated data set, they will be able to make more informed decisions about their courses and that’s really important.”

Engineering prof. Bill Schultz, vice chair of SACUA, said the postponement of the release until now allowed faculty and students to make the process more attentive to community needs.

“We wanted to do this in a thoughtful way,” Schultz said. “If this was going to be officially released, we wanted to have the instrument to change it, to make it less of a popularity contest and more of a thoughtful process that talks about learning outcomes students might see in the course.”

SACUA members noted that several concerns still remained about the release, such as whether faculty would adjust their classes to better suit evaluations. Schultz said professors could be incentivized to make their classes easier to get better evaluations.

“One of my main two-cents is having faculty not teach to the evaluations, where we might not make the courses challenging to get better evaluations,” Schultz said. “In fact, I see that in my own classes. If I make a course hard, I don’t get evaluated as well.”

Dillard wrote that she thought faculty concerns about evaluations are legitimate, noting teaching to the evaluations could be a drawback of their releases.

“Faculty anxiety about making the data available is a real and serious thing,” Dillard said. “Not many people I know really want any piece of their performance evaluations made public. I think there is some reason to be concerned that some faculty will begin to ‘teach to the evaluation,’ and the lowest common denominator.”