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Questioning the value of instructor evaluations 

At semester’s end, relieved students grab a number-two pencil and fill out instructor review forms. From praise, to valid concerns, to outright complaints, they scribble furiously, hoping their comments will make a difference.

(Ervin Cho)

(Ervin Cho)

Marwan Marwan, a second- year computer systems technology student, says the reviews are misleading. Unfortunately, few students understand that these reviews are basic administrative window-dressing.

“It doesn’t allow for students to raise their concerns or views when they need to because the instructors are like, Oh, just wait until the end of the semester and then you can write it in the comment sheet,’” said Marwan. “I think it’s a way to keep students from raising issues through the proper channels.”

Few in the student body know that BCIT lacks an official policy for the reviews. Students who do know feel discouraged when they find out their feedback is the bubble-sheet equivalent of chopped liver.

[pullquote]”Instructors and administrators aren’t required to even glance at these scantrons before tossing them in the trash.”[/pullquote]

According to Executive Director of the Faculty Staff Association Paul Reniers, the reviews are part of a Performance Development System (PDS) intended to highlight course material and teaching methods instructors should work on.

“With that intention in mind, it’s a system that works pretty well when it’s used purposely,” Reniers told The Link.

However, he says the system isn’t used as frequently as it should be. And with no mandate to ensure the reviews are used, Reniers says they can fall by the wayside: combing through the evaluations is an extra effort on top of an instructor’s cumbersome workload.

Given that the reviews may not even be freed from their manila envelopes once they’re collected, it’s safe to say that voicing concerns on them may ensure the issue is never addressed. A disclaimer with this information might be a helpful tip to students who have immediate — or serious — concerns.

This evaluation venue is a veritable dead-end for students hoping their feedback matters, but there is an instructor assessment process at BCIT (that varies in each faculty). Generally, a colleague sits in on a class in session to watch an instructor’s performance. Information from these observations is used in a closed-doors meeting with management.

Processes for students to evaluate instructors vary across post-secondary institutions in BC, but most incorporate a student feedback form. Whether this feedback is used also varies across schools.

Like BCIT, SFU’s instructors are not required to act on comments in student reviews. There’s an understanding that students may use the anonymous forms to fulfill semester-long vendettas. SFU diverges considerably from BCIT in that the reviews are studied for tenure and returning sessional instructors (though it’s not a key determinant).

Unfortunately, there’s still a perception amongst SFU students that the forms have little impact on teaching quality.

Then there’s UBC, where end-of-semester performance reviews are used to consider promotions and tenure. Now, a pilot project has been launched to add midterm student evaluations to the mix.

UBC physics professor Simon Bates and Kiran Mahal, VP-Academic of UBC’s student union, spearheaded a project that asked 22 faculty members from the faculties of arts, science, applied science and kinesiology to offer their students evaluations halfway through the semester. Many of the professors who included them said they were able to tweak their courses to accommodate students’ comments and concerns.

Mid-term evaluations aren’t yet mandatory anywhere at UBC except at Sauder School of Business. Overall, though, student response to mid-term evaluations in other faculties was positive, and project lead Mahal hopes their effectiveness will encourage more faculty members to offer them.

In sum, UBC students may eventually have an opportunity to evaluate their professors twice a term on review forms that will bear the scrutiny of their professors.

Students at BCIT may not necessarily have their concerns acknowledged by filling out performance reviews, but there are other avenues. One option is to talk directly to an instructor, which may not be a palatable choice if the problem is a personality conflict.

A preferred route might be to seek the advice of a program head, and from there, it might be up to the instructor’s manager to address the issue. Finally, BCIT offers counseling and mediation services, which could at least start a paper trail for concerns.

[pullquote align=”right”]”I think it’s a way to keep students from raising issues through the proper channels.” — computer systems technology student Marwan Marwan[/pullquote]

In reality, students may feel that putting a face to their issue will jeopardize their success in class. This is why anonymous performance reviews can hold valuable information. If there’s a repeated complaint within the reviews from a wide swathe of students, perhaps there’s a legitimate need for a formal instructor review.

At the end of the day, instructors find feedback in performance evaluations useful for improving course quality. A 2008 study at the University of Toronto also suggested that the data is useful for making personnel decisions.

And why not? Students in post-secondary institutions are adults, paying good money to absorb an instructor’s expertise. It’s in their best interest to be honest about the quality of the instruction they’re receiving — both for themselves, and for the reputation of the institution.

with files from Neetu Garcha

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