Putting USATs back on the table a good sign

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Queen’s revision of the student feedback process is a welcome step, but it won’t mean anything if USAT results aren’t taken seriously.

For each class they take, students fill out a USAT form reviewing the course — the University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT), which is collected by the Registrar’s Office. The data is crunched electronically and professors are given an amalgamated score, along with anonymous comments from students. 

The Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) and the Queen’s administration have agreed to revise this process. 

Frankly, it’s about time. 

Year after year students sit through subpar courses that, despite student complaints, continue to go unchanged. It can be frustrating for students to fill out these forms and not see any tangible return on their feedback. 

When student concerns are ignored for too long, situations arise like the incident in 2015, when Queen’s landed in hot water after several national newspapers reported that a  professor taught anti-vaccination content in her health class. The University had received complaints about the professor’s class since 2011. 

Less extreme, though still unfair, situations can occur when student feedback is disregarded — from different courses sections teaching vastly different content to students receiving grades that don’t reflect their true knowledge. 

Most students’ worries about the USAT process can be alleviated by adding a proceduralrequirement that professors actually read the comments on the forms. 

An average score doesn’t necessarily represent the concerns of the entire class, nor do preset yes or no style questions allow for the most important issues to be addressed. 

Reading individual comments may be an arduous task, but if there are red flags about a professor, they will show up in student’s comments. 

But as this revision is being conducted between QUFA and the administration, it could become a tug-of-war between the two groups over professors’ accountability and their autonomy. 

To make sure that the point of the USAT system — improving students’ education — isn’t forgotten, student leaders like the AMS should have more of a say at the bargaining table. 

There’s a legitimate concern that student feedback isn’t always accurate. For instance, if professors are a part of a marginalized group, they may be subjected to student bias. So, a USAT form that asks questions in a way that negates the possibility for a student’s prejudice to impact their opinion of a professor’s competence is essential. 

Ultimately, the USAT provides a solid informational basis for the University to make decisions. 

But from an external perspective, USAT scores simply disappear into a vacuum and are never seen or heard from again. 

For example, the Queen’s Strategic Framework — the University’s five-year overall plan — measures student engagement using the National Survey of Student Engagement. 

It doesn’t make sense that Queen’s would use a national survey that isn’t specific to Queen’s or its courses to measure something they could determine from the USATs, which pertain to every student in every course. 

Real, informed knowledge about their courses is sitting right under QUFA’s and the Administration’s noses, they just need to read it. 

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