Kevan Duve: Creating meaningful evaluations

The most comically awkward moment of the semester in any class usually occurs on course evaluation day. The instructor, as mandated by University policy, is forced to uneasily excuse himself or herself from class five or 10 minutes early while students are asked to rate his or her performance. What follows is usually a noisy rush to bubble-in Scantron sheets, scribble one or two inchoate remarks (if generous) and be on with the day. The slapdash completion of evaluations, contrasted with the solemnity in which the instructor leaves the room, is illustrative of the flaws in the process.

GW is now among the many schools that have realized this peculiar song-and-dance is no way to glean meaningful information about the quality of instruction being offered. For students, five minutes at the end of class is hardly enough time to reflect on a semester’s worth of learning, much less concisely articulate those thoughts. An online system now being implemented at GW and other universities nationwide holds prospects of improving both the procedure and the quality of evaluations.

The apparent benefits of conducting evaluations online are plentiful. Students are able to complete the survey at their own pace at a time convenient for them. The instructor is spared the loss of class time and discomfort that springs from the paranoid insistence on confidentiality. Also, use of an online system significantly reduces the amount of manpower required to distribute paper forms and tabulate results.

However, it is inevitable that the switch to online evaluations will come with significantly decreased rates of participation. The online evaluation process is not compulsory, nor should it be. Some students will opt out because of apathy, and they have a right to do so; coerced participation, per the current policy, only skewers the results.

It would be a mistake, though, to attribute non-participation only to student apathy. The popularity of the “Rate My Professors” (www.ratemyprofessors.com) Web site demonstrates there is no shortage of students eager to voice opinions on the strengths, weaknesses, oddities and appearances of their instructors. The challenge GW faces is in finding a way to funnel these sentiments into a forum a bit more legitimate than the Internet grapevine.

The largest obstacle is that most students see little incentive in composing thoughtful evaluations, online or offline. A great number believe their comments are merely shoved into a filing cabinet or disappear into the online ether. The only way to remedy this problem is to make the evaluation process completely transparent: students must be given ready access to full evaluation results. And it’s more than a matter of efficacy; it’s also a matter of principle – students have a right to know which classes are providing intellectual nourishment and which are not.

GW has begun to post limited information from evaluations conducted online last year, but they are doing so in perhaps the least helpful manner possible. First, the link (http://my.gwu.edu/mod/evaluations) is inordinately difficult to find and is only made apparent to students when they have new evaluations to complete. Second, only 13 generic multiple-choice questions from a 38-question screener are available for review.

If GW hopes to make a successful transition to online evaluations, the survey must be simplified and the results must be disclosed in full. There is no reason why the information asked in 38 questions can’t be asked in 10. An unnecessarily lengthy screener only invites a blow-off response. Also, seven questions asking for a free-form answers are entirely too many. It would be far more productive to ask for a focused one- or two-paragraph reflection on the course and the instructor generally. Administrators may be surprised that students actually know appropriate details to include without being specifically told.

A compendium of free-form responses regarding a particular course would be the most helpful resource for students during course selection. I don’t particularly care what a student rated a course or instructor on a scale of one to five; it would be infinitely more valuable to read the comments. Profane or libelous comments should be edited out by a staffer unfamiliar with the instructor; everything else should be made available to anyone who can login to myGW, thus creating a partition from the Internet public.

I’m the last person to believe that prevailing student opinion is the final word on the merits of any instructor, but so long as student feedback is deemed helpful, secrecy will never be the best means of soliciting it.

GW will understandably be reluctant to post scathing critiques of lackluster faculty, but there are still plenty of those life-changing, seemingly superhuman professors, too. It is past time that their contributions to the quality of a GW education are made explicit.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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