For professors, report cards, too

March 10, 2010, 1:15 a.m.

Where do students’ course evaluations go? Toward setting salaries, admins say

For students, the end of winter quarter means not only final exams and spring break plans, but also course evaluations, those thrice-yearly surveys in which students rate their classes in exchange for an earlier glimpse at their grades.

For professors and teaching assistants, those course evaluations also mean end-quarter grades — not a part of their GPA, but important for a shot at a raise, a promotion or tenure.

For professors, report cards, too
A student completes an end-of-quarter course evaluation online in exchange for an early glimpse at her winter grades. Administrators said the evaluations factor into decisions about promotions and salaries for professors and TAs. (RALPH NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Professors who are being evaluated for promotion or tenure must submit all course evaluations since their last promotion, according to Patricia Jones, the vice provost for faculty development and a biology professor. The results of those evaluations play a role in decisions about whether or not to promote a professor, as well as whether or not to hire a teaching assistant (TA) as a full faculty member.

“Additionally, course evaluations are used on a regular basis for setting salaries,” Jones said.

Every professor must submit an annual report — including course evaluation results — to their department chair, who makes salary recommendations to the dean of the school each year, she added. The results of course evaluations help administrators keep professors accountable for their performance in the classroom, even after receiving tenure.

Some 80 to 85 percent of students evaluate their courses during fall, winter and spring quarters, according to Rosa Chappell, an assistant University registrar. For summer courses, the rate drops to 65 or 70 percent. Some departments boast higher numbers: for instance, more than 90 percent of political science students return evaluations, said department chair James Fearon.

Of course, although course evaluations are part of the promotion and salary-setting processes, Jones said the University values course evaluations as a measurement of teaching quality, too.

“Teaching is an important part of faculty work,” Jones said. “It is expected that our faculty are good teachers.”

That is especially the case with many TAs, who, in many departments, get critical feedback from course evaluations. In the economics department, TA evaluations also help determine who among them receives quarterly awards. Evaluations may also affect a TA’s future postings.

“Some of my TAs ask if I’ll write a recommendation letter for them, so I’ll go back and look at their evaluations,” Jones said.

Course evaluations include both a numerical ranking portion and a short answer portion, in which students are asked to write their own comments about the class.

According to Carol Boggs, a biology professor and the director of the Program in Human Biology, department heads and administrators can only see the numerical rankings, while the individual professors and TAs may see the short answers — which Jones said lend useful insight.

“Not every student takes the time to answer questions by writing,” Jones said. “But there are always suggestions in there that I really appreciate having. I would guess most faculty really appreciate those sorts of comments from students.”

Jones, who teaches upper-division biology courses, said she looks back at course evaluations from past years when preparing for courses she has taught before.

But the course evaluation system is not without weaknesses, professors said. If they wish to evaluate their courses and sections in the middle of the quarter, they must create and distribute their own evaluation forms, as the University-wide system only solicits evaluations at the end of the quarter.

“I wish the system could be improved to allow for more information in the middle of the quarter,” said Han Hong, an economics professor and the director of undergraduate studies for the department. “There’s nothing officially in place for that.”

Others feel that course evaluations focus largely on presentation, rather than on the quality of course content.

“My larger criticism of course evaluations is that they tend to result in responses to presentation of material, rather than what’s actually learned,” Boggs said in an e-mail to The Daily.

Hong agreed that there is some room for improvement in the process.

“The current feedback is on a micro level, so there is less discussion between the student body and the faculty body about where the students think a program should be going,” Hong said. “If there were a systematic effort for this from the University level, that would be more successful.”

Although many students evaluate their courses thoughtfully, Boggs noted that there are always those who don’t take evaluations seriously.

“I also know faculty (not me!) who have gotten marriage proposals via course evaluations,” Boggs said. “That does not bode well for the seriousness and professionalism with which those students approached the evaluation!”

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