University plans release of course evaluation data
Engineering Prof. James Holloway, the vice provost for global and engaged education, said Monday the University could implement plans to release course evaluation data as early as this semester.
Holloway’s announcement at Monday’s Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs’ meeting came as a surprise to many of the committee’s members.
According to Holloway, the University will release all numerical data from student course evaluations via a website accessible only to those with a University uniqname account. Holloway said the prototype website has been up and running for six to eight months. Though the site has featured limited data, he said it provides a rough outline of what the actual site will look like.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the meeting, SACUA chair Silke-Maria Weineck, a professor of comparative literature, said the plan was formed without sufficient faculty input.
“It has not been debated at SACUA and it has not been debated at Senate Assembly, and so we feel like there hasn’t been enough broad consultation because this is something that affects everyone, faculty and students,” Weineck said.
Comments written on the evaluations will not be released, nor will the data collected from course evaluations of classes taught by graduate student instructors or instructors with fewer than seven terms of teaching experience.
Holloway said though student organizations have compiled course evaluation data in the past by obtaining the information through Freedom of Information Act requests, the process has often been inconsistent.
“It was sometimes done in some rather idiosyncratic ways,” he said. “And of course it’s difficult for a student group, with students cycling in and out, for them to maintain some consistency in quality. So the data was being released but not always presented in a meaningful way.”
Holloway said the data, which had been requested by Central Student Government, LSA Student Government and the Rackham Graduate School Student Government, is important to students.
“The primary drivers for this are that the students have requested it and have made the point that the data is data they give us with their own volition, and they have some agency and interest in this data,” he said.
However, SACUA members expressed concern with the University’s plan to release current course evaluation data.
Weineck said a majority of faculty members dislike the current course evaluation methods.
“In my 17 years at the University of Michigan, I have not heard from a single person that thinks this is a good instrument providing good data,” she said. “In sum, nobody thinks that these are good data. And whatever they are, they were not designed to assist students in choosing classes; it is the wrong instrument for that. So what we’ve been saying at the Senate Assembly, it’s not that we don’t think students don’t have a legitimate interest in having more and better information on how to choose classes, but we think at a world-class University it behooves us to design an instrument that can actually deliver the data needed for that purpose. “
Kinesiology Prof. Stefan Szymanski, a SACUA member, questioned the University’s decision to release data that could affect faculty’s personal and professional lives.
“I’ve met people who have had their lives more or less ruined by this,” Szymanski said. “What happens if some day somebody commits suicide because this went public and all their students were talking about how bad it was. Is it a good idea for us to uptake a process that might wind up ruining people’s lives?”
Responding to Szymanski, Holloway said he “rejects the premise of the question.”
Engineering Prof. Bill Schultz, SACUA’s vice chair, questioned the educational implications of releasing course evaluation data.
“Are you at all concerned that if more emphasis is put on this that faculty will teach to the evaluations and will that have a negative learning effect?” Schultz asked. “I think the answer has to be yes.”
Committee members also debated the extent to which final student grades, as well as a professor’s gender and race can invoke bias in course evaluations.
Weineck said faculty governance, student government and experts in assessment at the University — such as the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching — should work together to form a new evaluation instrument, one that will better address student and faculty needs.
In response, Holloway said the process would take too long.
“It’ll take longer than a year,” he said. “We’re a long breath institution, but I think our students who are here for a shorter time deserve a faster response than that.”
SACUA members and Holloway did not reach a consensus during the meeting, and Weineck said it is hard to know how the plan to release course evaluation data will proceed from here.
“We don’t know what his long term reaction to this meeting will be,” Weineck said after the meeting. “But we will discuss this at the next Senate Assembly meeting in October because we think lots of faculty members should be consulted.”
The next Senate Assembly meeting will be held Oct. 26.
This article has been updated to clarify that the plan seeks to release all numerical data from evaluations, not only evaluation questions 1-4.