Do Instructor Reviews Matter?

Students fill out evaluations for every course, but is this the best way for them to voice their feedback? Link investigates how much weight instructor reviews have on improving BCIT programs, and if there are ways to enhance how students evaluate their education.

words Ali Pitargue & Lauren Edwards

 

Near the tail-end of every semester, the tables turn between teachers and students when it’s time to fill out course evaluations. Instructors pass around scantron forms and a box of ground wooden pencils before exiting the room; they are not allowed to see or hear anything before the results are gathered and revealed to them formally.

In this short period, students get to assign their teachers a grade and write out their feedback about the course. The forms contain two sections for students to fill out—the scantron portion and the written questionnaire. In the scantron section, students get asked about various aspects of the course, then they bubble in whether they are very unsatisfied, very satisfied, or anything in-between. Answering the written questionnaire allows students to individually express and specify which aspects of the course need improvement.

Financial management instructor Vnit Nath says, “It provides students an opportunity to give confidential feedback and faculty an opportunity to hear what students find useful and not useful.”

“They keep instructors accountable, and students can voice their concerns in a formal matter,” says carpentry instructor Robert Johnston. “Sometimes it’s hard to know the quality of teaching in classes and lectures, but students have a good gauge.”

Some students genuinely want to enhance the program and help instructors improve. Whether or not they get to see their feedback realized is another matter. Depending on the instructor, how the reviews affect the program’s efforts to improve vary. Some instructors have built up years’ worth of job security. If students have major gripes with their teaching, it would take immense pressure for instructors with senior positions to make large changes to the curriculum, or to give up their posts.

As a result, plenty of students are at a loss for what to do when they have issues with their instructors. BCIT assures students that their feedback is valuable, but the Student Advocacy office often hears differently.

BCIT Student Advocacy Manager, Robyn Lougheed, says that instructor dissatisfaction is the number one matter that gets brought up in her office. “I hear students say that they really don’t feel heard. They fill out these evaluations, and nothing seems to happen,” explains Lougheed.

Course evaluations are merely one part of the instructor appraisal process. It’s up to the instructors to value their students’ feedback and adjust their teaching styles accordingly. If not, they’re mostly ineffective. There is minimal opportunity for sizable results to come out of the way reviews are managed, where the forms circulate in a loop of inaction.

It starts with students submitting evaluations at the end of the semester. The instructor receives the results, but they aren’t required to make changes. Then new students come in, they complain to Student Advocacy about the same issues, and again, instructors can elect to pay these issues little mind. Rinse and repeat.

“Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where there’s not a whole lot that students can really do about [certain instructors taking feedback in stride]. The students just need to keep talking. They need to keep using their voice,” says Lougheed.

According to Lougheed, students are capable of substantially impacting the improvement of the program, but it would take more than filling out a form. If students want to enact change, it would be more effective for them to shed confidentiality and talk to instructors directly. Instructor reviews are only one avenue of communication that students can use to improve their education.

How It Works

What exactly happens to those evaluation forms after students fill them out?

For paper forms, the students’ responses are typed out verbatim at the Learning and Teaching Centre, and then handed back to the instructor (to prevent any recognition of handwriting). Scores are unveiled after courses have finished.

From here, the evaluations are administered differently depending on the instructor’s union.

For those under the Instructional Government Employees’ Union (GEU), both the quantitative summaries and questionnaire answers are distributed to the faculty member and their supervising Chief Instructor or Associate Dean.

If the instructor is part of the Faculty and Staff Association (FSA), only the scantron portion is given to the Associate Dean. The instructor can choose to discuss the written suggestions with the dean, but they are not required to. According to the BCIT FSA Collective Bargaining Agreement, “In no case shall any student questionnaire forms be placed on the employee’s personnel file except at the request of the employee.” (Section 13.2.8, pg. 80)

BCIT’s Associate VP of Implementation and Integration, Jennifer Figner, says hand-written comments are taken into close consideration. “It is a very valuable portion of the feedback and is considered in the same way as the quantitative data.”

According to Lougheed, teachers can utilize the student questionnaires. “There are certainly some fabulous instructors here who say they need that information. They want [to] make changes based on what their students are saying,” she assures.

Unfortunately, some students think that the flip side also happens, where teachers do not take students’ answers into consideration.

When students fill out those reviews, the amount of thought they put in varies. This can be due to how much they assume their individual feedback is worth, or due to whether or not the input would work to their benefit. It could even be related to how tired they happened to be on the day evaluations were handed out.

Yasmin, a first-year accounting student, says it depends on how strongly she feels about the course. “It’s based on my experience with the instructor and how they’ve been in the class.”

She doubts reviews make a difference, because different students can have diverse takeaways. “I think it’s personal opinion, so if I were to give an opinion on an instructor and somebody else were to read it, then I think they would have their own thoughts.”

Darren, a first-year broadcast and online journalism student, says he would like to think the reviews make an impact, but he is unsure how effective it will be. He implies honesty is key. “I’ll do my best to describe how I felt about the class, so hopefully the instructors can put it towards good use.”

For senior students, their time and observations at BCIT could influence how they provide feedback. William, a second-year student in CST (Computer Science Technology), says he never believed the evaluations made a difference, nor was he able to witness any improvements with individual teachers. “We’ve gotten different instructors for each semester,” he laughs.

If anything, these varying perceptions show that the evaluation process could use more transparency.

Figner also agrees with Lougheed’s suggestion. “Students can and should voice their concerns directly to their instructor,” suggests Figner. “If students don’t feel that they receive appropriate resolution, we encourage them to speak to someone in the Student Advocates’ office.” Alternatively, students can also approach their Set Reps who can relay their concerns to their program heads. There are many other optional review methods that instructors can implement.

Judy Shandler is the Performance Development Systems Coordinator for the ITS department at BCIT. With teaching experience that spans 30 years, Shandler writes and promotes evaluations to instructors and their deans. Shandler especially praises formative reviews—this is a process where an instructor reaches out to a class to ask what is going well, what isn’t going well, and what students would like changed. Students submit answers anonymously on paper.

Shandler says that she would review answers and have a discussion with her students in the next class. Although the questions are basic, they can have impactful solutions. However, there are some things that cannot be changed and it’s important that it is communicated. “[Concerns] have to be discussed with the students. It can’t just be quietly stuffed somewhere,” says Shandler.

The BCIT student body is diverse in age, and Shandler particularly stresses that younger students are just as capable of providing substantial feedback as mature students. “Just because a student has just come out of high school, doesn’t mean they don’t have a right to an opinion on how the teaching is going.”

Evaluations are able to gather student concerns en masse and are probably the most feasible way for instructors to get a holistic picture. We should then ask: how could we make instructor surveys more effective?

What Else Could Be Done?

In 2019, Robyn Lougheed sat in a Student Evaluation of Teaching Committee, which consisted of the Learning and Teaching Centre, and representatives from the Instructors’ unions. They discussed what are the best questions to ask in course surveys. They workshopped questions that could possibly generate the best student responses, so instructors would be better able to pinpoint what measures they should take to improve their classes.

Lougheed thought that the committee discussions were helpful, but she intends on proposing some other major changes in how evaluations are administered. First, she highly recommends surveys be done mid-term instead of at the end of the semester.

“I don’t know if this is something that’s going to happen,” she says, “I know that it’s suggested to instructors that an evaluation be done at mid-term, so that if there is something that it could be discussed or looked at or amended if needed.”

If evaluations are handed out in October and February instead, students possibly have a chance to see their suggestions come to fruition. It would be a precautionary step, which could prevent students from coming out of the course feeling like it was a waste of time. This would benefit current students as well as the next batch, or any prospective enrollers.

Another effort is taking the evaluations online. Lougheed says, “Right now, the students are getting evaluations before a final exam. [If they miss it], they could pick it up after the final exam. This doesn’t always work in their favour.”

Currently, there is an initiative at BCIT for Paperless Course Evaluations (an option for students to fill out the forms on the Learning Hub), set out as an environmental conservation effort. Evaluation results are amalgamated more conveniently and with more confidentiality in mind. Online surveys eliminate a few steps in the process, like transcribing, and can be printed on PDFs for instructors to review. This year BCIT has transitioned almost completely to online evaluations. The trades departments are still kickinit old school, though.

According to Shandler, the response rates have dropped since moving the surveys online. The emails could be going to their junk mail, instructors are unsure how to personalize their surveys, or the new system could have bugs in the works. She says, “One thing that I remind instructors of is that they still need to allow ten minutes during the last day of class to complete the survey.”

Lougheed, however, is still hopeful. “I liked the anonymity. I just cross my fingers that students are respectful.”

In other words, don’t write you suck.

A couple of ways to be respectful are professionalism, tone and purposeful suggestions (i.e. asking teachers to upload slides on the Learning Hub or to speak slower). Going about it disrespectfully is counterproductive, which devalues the concept of being ‘job-ready’ after graduating.

“Generally, [teacher-student conflicts] come down to miscommunication. Something wasn’t understood, something was misconstrued or there just wasn’t enough information given,” adds Lougheed.

So, do instructor reviews matter? Yes, but they could use some updates. Changes to the teacher evaluation format could be in the works, bur for now, students have a voice and can make a difference.