COURSE EVALUATIONS PUT TO THE TEST

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By Eric Koreen

When Joey Power’s students started critiquing her teaching style on the back page of their exams, she knew she needed to find a better way to get student feedback.

“Especially when it’s not anonymous, and students are still writing comments, you know they have something to say,” said Power, a history professor at Ryerson since 1990. Power, inspired by the students’ comments, decided more than five years ago to hand out blank pieces of paper for students to write their suggestions along with the standard teacher and course evaluation bubble sheet near the end of the semester to get more constructive criticism.

Power asks one student to hold on to the comment forms until after exams are marked to avoid accusations of biased marking. The rest of Ryerson’s faculty has not followed Power’s lead. Regulated 11-question bubble sheet were handed out between Nov.1 and Nov.18 to students in each class.

The form presents seven questions about the instructor and four questions about the course, with no room for student comments. This evaluation method has remained unchanged for 20 years. The questionnaires are part of the hiring, firing and tenure process at Ryerson, and any change in the form must be negotiated between the university and the Ryerson Faculty Association. Both parties have formed a joint committee with equal representation from the school and faculty to review the current evaluation this academic year. Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said changing the course evaluations is not a simple task.

“I know that a huge amount of work goes into the instrument that is used,” he said. “There must be a scientific solution to change in course evaluations. “On the one hand, this could be destructive. Students may worry that a professor will recognize their handwriting. One just has to be very careful before jumping to any conclusions.” Vice-Provost of Faculty Affairs Michael Dewson, who negotiates any change to the form for the administration, was not available for comment. Power said the evaluation forms do not provide specific criticism which makes it difficult for her to accommodate students’ needs.

“Let’s say you get a mediocre review… and you say, ‘now what?’ I know (the students are not) enthused, but cripes, what now?” Ryerson hired a psychologist in the late ’70s to develop a questionnaire that accurately measured faculty members and course content, according to Ryerson sociology professor Bob Argue.

The psychologist developed a questionnaire of about 50 questions. However, Ryerson’s administration thought the evaluation would take up too much class time and cost too much money, so the school hired a second psychologist to write a more concise questionnaire, resulting in the form used today. Argue, who has taught at Ryerson for 33 years, thinks the evaluation questions are too general. He also questions the validity of the results. “Page three or four of any stats book says… you do not do arithmetic operations on ordinal data,” said Argue, referring to Ryerson’s method of adding up the results and dividing them by the number of students to get an average.

“Ordinal data are just arbitrary numbers.”

Argue said he likes the idea of a space for comments on the questionnaire, but he doesn’t think he’ll be seeing changes any time soon.

The committee’s findings are due on Dec. 31, 2006, although results are expected around the start of the next school year, said faculty association president Dave Mason.

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