Student teacher evaluations cause campus-wide headache

Carly Simpson

Only 14 class days remain in the semester, but before students can begin their caffeine-induced comas to survive exam week, they will be asked to evaluate their professors.

Some students revel in the opportunity to get back at a bad professor, some leave thoughtful remarks, and others just skip the evaluations altogether.

“I remember myself as a student, and I would bubble a lot of those to get the hell out of class,” a professor said Friday at the first of three town hall meetings organized to gather input on teacher evaluations.

The meetings are held by the Executive Committee of the Senate in response to an ECS recommendation for a standardized instrument to be adopted by the university. Currently each college and department can use its own forms and tools for evaluation.

The problem of developing an accurate and useful method of evaluating faculty members has been circling through university committees for five years.

“Many faculty might not be aware of this long conversation,” said Karen Gipson, chair of the University Academic Senate. “The problem is that people are being evaluated by different methods, and then we’re pretending that we’re all meeting the same standards of excellent teaching.”

Each year, professors undergo peer, self and student evaluations. The last has two purposes, Gipson said. The first is formative, meaning feedback is used to help faculty improve teaching. The second is summative, which determines promotion, tenure and teaching awards. The lack of a standardized form makes it difficult for these things to be accurately assessed.

Part of the problem is the forms used to evaluate professors. At the end of the semester, students are worried about upcoming exams. Filling out four or five different evaluations is not often high on their list of priorities.

“In my department, our form is five pages long. The thing is just horrendous,” said Tonya Parker, vice chair of UAS. “The response rate should be better, and if the kids didn’t hate the darn thing as much as I do, I think they would be better.”

Kyle Felker, a member of the Faculty Teaching and Learning Center Advisory Committee, agreed and added that the forms range from the competently designed to the grievously bad.

Another problem is students do not understand the importance of the evaluations.

“Good faculty that are doing their jobs well are fearful, in part, because of this quagmire around student evaluations, and this affects their experience at Grand Valley,” said Kristine Mullendore, professor in the School of Criminal Justice. “And faculty that were hired by mistake persist here because we don’t have good information from the evaluations.”

Rather than thoughtful critiques of teaching methods, some students only remark on the personality of a professor—or even their appearance, Parker said.

“I know that when I first arrived, I didn’t get any information back except comments on my clothes,” she said. “I couldn’t make that up if I tried. They railed my clothes. How is that effective for me to hear my first semester?”

During the town hall meeting, there was a suggestion to publish the results of student evaluations as an alternative to “Rate My Professors.” Michigan State University currently offers this as an option for students.

Two town hall meetings remain this semester. The first will take place tomorrow from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. in DeVos Center, and the second will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Dec. 6. in 2263 Kirkhof Center. The ECS will then review the suggestions made by faculty and send a recommendation to the UAS on how to proceed with the issue.