Department enhances course evaluations

Cody Boyer

With the winter semester reaching its halfway point soon, the Northern Michigan University English department updated its current course evaluations for the 2013-14 academic year.

Ray Ventre
Ray Ventre

The NMU English department faculty and staff have modified the current method of distributing course evaluations since the 2011-12 academic year, making evaluations available online for students and shorter in terms of available questions.

Ray Ventre, professor and head of the English department, said the update to evaluations started a few years ago in an effort to make course evaluations more convenient to complete and observe by students and faculty.

“About two or three years ago, the dean of AIS (Academic Information Services) indicated that they wanted to get rid of Scantron sheets – bubble sheets – for tests and saw the writing on the wall there,” Ventre said. “We have been having a bit of a problem with [physical forms] because we have so many evaluations. I saw this as an opportunity to fix some of the problems and regulate it again.”

According to the English department, longer paper evaluations were cut down from a minimum of 14 questions per evaluation to about half the amount and the evaluations can now be completed using the Internet.

“We had about three different forms we were using,” Ventre said. “Some of them were rather extensive; the shortest ones we had were about 14, 15 or 16 questions. So what we did was start talking to the faculty, presented the situation to them after having a small [Working Additions] committee get together and worked on reducing [the evaluations]. We got down to about seven questions.”

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) clause 5.4.1.2.1.1, the evaluations shall include “an appraisal of student learning including achievement of learning objectives required in 6.2.1.”

In other words, Ventre said a question detailing the objectives of the course to be evaluated needed to be included in the revised forms.

“it has given us an advantage under our new contract in which we have to refer it to completion of course objectives, so now you can put in a question on the objectives for the course,” Ventre said.  “Did the course meet this? How did the course meet this? Then we put a five-four-three-two-one rating so we can assess how well the students, overall, felt they learned from this.”

Dale Kapla, assistant provost for Undergraduate Programming and Faculty Affairs, said AAUP formed the contract which stated the added policy two years ago, setting the course for course evaluations to become easier to update.

“The faculty union (AAUP) settled their current three-year contract in 2012 which included the following additions to a faculty member’s evaluation,” Kapla said. “Student evaluations became student ‘ratings’ – the appraisal of student-learning is brand new and colleague assessment of teaching – which is brand new to the contract, but some department bylaws already had that provision.”

While the evaluation changes have been in action during this academic year already, Ventre said a prominent increase in completed student evaluations is evident after the update.

“Over the last three years, I would say we are getting better than a 75 to 80 percent completion rate on the evaluations, overall,” Ventre said. “Some classes are lower but many times have 100 percent completion. It depends on the faculty members, especially if you build it into the course as some sort of requirement.”

Ventre said students completing evaluations at the end of semesters can sometimes expect benefits to doing so depending on the course and instructor as opposed to getting penalized for not completing the assessments.

“We said, ‘You either get the stick or the carrot here,’” Ventre said. “People who were arguing about the stick were saying, ‘Well, can we really threaten students with [penalties]?’ and we didn’t want to do that. The carrot, however, has worked out pretty well. It’s more like carrot cake now. We made it sweet. If they do the evaluations, they’ll get some extra credit. Some professors have begun to use this.”

According to Ventre, course evaluations can now be altered better to fit specific courses in terms of question amounts and content. Ventre also said the use of online evaluations protects student anonymity better than paper forms.

Kapla said the faculty union and the NMU administration both aim to develop better evaluations to help benefit students further in their implementation.

““The administration and AAUP work under a model of shared governance and understand that means shared responsibility,” Kapla said. “Both entities have a shared interest and responsibility to provide our students with the best possible education. Agreeing to make these mechanisms for assessing student learning a part of every faculty member’s cumulative performance evaluation is paramount to a quality educational experience.”