Evaluations target areas to improve teaching

Erica Savage has had professors she could not stand.Savage, a sophomore Spanish major, said she has used TCU’s Student Perception of Teaching forms a few times to complain about professors.

She said the forms are important because they give students a chance to voice their opinions. And in one situation, she said, her complaints were heard.

Savage said she took second- and third-level Spanish classes from the same professor. She said the professor changed the third-level class in the specific areas targeted by students in the previous class’s evaluations.

Janna Livingston, administrative assistant for the Office of Institutional Research, said TCU has been allowing students to formally evaluate professors for more than 20 years. In fact, she said, it’s required by the ag ency that accredits the university, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Other accredited schools in Texas that follow the same guidelines include Baylor and Southern Methodist Universities, as well as the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems. Although methods sometimes differ, the universities still require regular evaluations.

For example, according to Baylor’s Institutional Research and Testing department, the school requires evaluations every three years for tenured professors and every fall semester for other faculty members. The policy does suggest, however, that all faculty members “participate in the student evaluations voluntarily at least one semester each year.”

At TCU, evaluations are much more frequent. The Handbook for Faculty and Staff requires all part- and full-time faculty members to be evaluated every semester.

The handbook says, “Such evaluation provides beneficial information to the faculty member for the continued improvement of instruction and provides one measure of a faculty member’s performance for decisions concerning promotion, tenure and merit salary increases.”

The process starts with students.

Near the end of each semester, thousands of Student Perception of Teaching forms are distributed throughout the university. After students complete the SPOT forms, they are delivered, in sealed packets, to the Office of Institutional Research, said Livingston, who coordinates the evaluation process.

Once there, Livingston said, she or one of her student assistants scans every form – totaling about 78,000 forms a year – and generates one report for each packet. The reports contain a condensed view of the evaluation forms’ findings, she said.

Next, the packets are delivered to the deans of each school where the forms, and enclosed reports, may be reviewed. They are given to department chairs and, finally, individual instructors, she said.

The process takes time, but there’s a reason behind the long turnaround.

“The instructor does not receive the original packet until approximately one month after class ends, and by that time, grades have already been submitted,” Livingston said.

Livingston said the system is designed to guarantee anonymity and to protect students.

Mary Volcansek, the dean of AddRan College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said her position gives her access to every evaluation form filed out within the college. She also said if a professor in her school were to change a grade based on an evaluation, she would know immediately.

“If a faculty member chooses to change a grade, that must be counter-signed by the department chair and the associate dean,” she said. “A reason for changing a grade must be specified.

“Presumably, if a professor changed a student’s grade, the student would know it and could appeal. That would lead to discovery if there had been a malicious change.”

Volcansek said she has never heard of a situation where a faculty member tried to change a grade because of a negative evaluation.

There is a loophole in the guarantee of anonymity, however. Livingston said even though there are no names on the evaluation forms, “there is nothing to prevent the instructor from recognizing handwriting or writing styles because the instructor receives the original evaluation form.”

Still, Volcansek said this problem is slight.

“Contrary to popular belief, most faculty would not, and could not, recognize the handwriting of a particular student,” Volcansek said.

She said, in this system, negative evaluations are examined at more than face value.

“A single negative evaluation in one class can mean many things and must be taken in the context of all the classes a professor teaches,” she said. “Also, the rigor of the course and the grade distributions are considered along with SPOT evaluations.”

Although these formal evaluations have been going on for about two decades, the procedure has changed.

Susan Staples, an associate professor of mathematics, is a member of the committee that oversees the design of evaluation forms.

Staples said the forms change usually every five to seven years, and the committee already is starting to consider changes that could be made in the next two years.

Volcansek also said she wants changes to the system. Although the numerical ratings given to professors are saved in records, students’ comments are not, she said.

“I would prefer that there was a record kept of the comments that students made,” she said. “The comments are often far more helpful than the numbers and shed light on potential problems.”

Livingston said she wants to see the entire process move to the Internet, even though the change would involve “intensive work on the front end.” She said she thinks evaluations take too much time and use too many supplies, such as forms, envelopes and pencils.

With an online system, Livingston said, “the reports and distribution would be less labor-intensive, and the supply issue would be practically non-existent.”

Savage said she thinks a switch to an online system would result in fewer evaluations because students typically do not respond well to online surveys.

Matt Lundborg, a sophomore business and Spanish major, said he thinks doing evaluations during class encourages more response.

“If you’re sitting there in class, you can’t leave until you do it,” he said.