Course evaluations essential for profs 

By Karen Herland

Anyone who has ever been a student remembers the shiver of fear provoked by what might be sitting in an office somewhere as part of their ‘permanent record’.

Few students realize that professors are equally concerned about the content of their teaching evaluations.

Students know the marks they receive will determine what classes they can take next term, what schools they can apply to for their next degree and even what jobs they may be eligible for down the line.

“Evaluations are taken very seriously. They are used by department chairs, personnel and hiring committees and considered in dossiers when professors are hired, promoted or granted tenure,” says Ollivier Dyens, Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning Services. “More than that, professors want to know what’s happened in a class so they can improve.”

Traditionally, the information was collected from students in 15 minutes at the end of a class. The assumption was that a random selection of students present, answering a stock set of questions, would provide a snapshot of the student’s mood and impact.

Two years ago, online evaluations were adopted on a Faculty-by-Faculty basis. Initial fears related to self-selected participation and a concern that only students with an axe to grind would bother to fill them out. Also, since the participation was virtual, questions were raised about whether students would be filling out multiple evaluations or evaluating professors they had not actually studied with.

“Most of those fears proved to be wrong,” Dyens says. With little qualitative difference between the paper and online results, it doesn’t appear that negative feelings are affecting the new system nor driving student participation.

However, participation has dropped. The university has seen an overall 13% drop in participation and 30% for the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Dyens is convinced lacklustre participation rates are more directly linked to students’ conviction the results of an evaluation process have no bearing on a professor’s career. He is currently involved in a campaign across the university to counter the misconception.

“Participation rates need to be high. We can’t get a good feeling about what is going on in the classroom unless they are,” he explains.

Dyens wants students to know the university guarantees their anonymity. Although some material is tagged so students cannot evaluate the same course multiple times, the information linking them to their comments is destroyed well before the professor sees the evaluations.

While departmental chairs and administrators see the quantitative results of the evaluations, only professors see the comments they receive.

He feels it is part of a student’s responsibility, both for their own education and that for the cohort coming after them, to fill out evaluations in a way that helps the professor improve the course and their pedagogy.

Dyens adds that although teaching evaluations figure in the collective agreements of faculty members, there are currently eight different evaluations being used with even the same question posed differently between them. He would like to see a standardized way for students to communicate whether learning objectives were met.


Concordia University