USAT course evaluations to be reviewed

Pat Welsh, AMS academic affairs commissioner, is working to bring USAT results to students.
Pat Welsh, AMS academic affairs commissioner, is working to bring USAT results to students.
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Students know the end of term is near when they fill out orange course evaluation forms, but once they hand in their surveys to the DSC reps, they typically have no idea what the results are.

That process is about to undergo a makeover.

A committee of student representatives, faculty members and administrators will be meeting to change and improve the current course evaluation process, called the University Survey of Student Assessment of Teaching (USAT).

“USAT now does not work, everyone acknowledges that,” said Pat Welsh, academic affairs commissioner. “USAT [administrators] have done a great job at statistical analysis and I never question the numbers or method, but maybe we’re not asking the right questions.”

The USAT system was originally developed as an evaluation process to be included in a professor’s record, Welsh said. He said the results are consulted when making promotion and tenure decisions.

According to the USAT website, the results are also used “to improve approaches to teaching as well as course materials and design.”

Welsh said his first concern is whether the questions effectively evaluate good teaching. While teachers are able to tailor each form specifically to their course, he said the questions might not provide an accurate evaluation of a teacher’s performance or the course material.

Welsh added the results are not always useful, as evaluations are done at the end of term when professors can no longer address concerns or suggestions that students have.

“Concerns can range from a professor talking too fast to not being sensitive to the needs of students, and this is not addressed until after the fact,” he said.

Stephanie Bell, ArtSci ’07, said she agreed.

“It’d be good if they did evaluations in the middle of term,” she said. “Students providing the feedback should get to benefit from it.”

Welsh said another challenge is accurately comparing courses from different faculties and of varying popularity and difficulty.

“Less appealing courses might be penalized,” he said. “And easier [grading] professors might get better evaluations.”

To address these problems, a new committee has been formed called the Joint Committee on the Assessment of Teaching. It includes Welsh, five other student representatives, two faculty members, two members from the administration and Dave Thomas, president of the SPGS.

The representatives will ask students what they want and discuss possible changes to the evaluation process.

“It’s impossible to say how the forms will change. There could be no forms at all, who knows?” Welsh said. “One thing we’ll do is see how other schools do it.” Welsh said the AMS is aiming to compile a collection of course evaluations similar to the “ASSU Anti-Calendar” which is compiled by the Arts and Sciences Student Union (ASSU) at the University of Toronto. The “Anti-Calendar,” which ASSU has published since 1981, is distributed free to students in late spring. Both professors and courses are rated on a scale of 1 to 7, in areas such as presentation, explanation, workload and learning experience.

The Queen’s edition of the published course evaluation will be named “What’s What?” Jonathan Yip, Comm ’08, said he has often wondered where the course evaluations end up and hopes professors see the results.

“I honestly don’t know where the results go,” Yip said. “I would like to see them but I usually ask upper-years about teachers.

“I just do the evaluations because it helps the professor ... that is, if results actually get to the prof.”

Andrew Rance, Comm ’08, said he thinks it would be helpful to get feedback from the evaluations.

“I heard from ArtSci that people see results, but I don’t know about Commerce,” he said. “It’d be good to know what we’re telling them is being put together and to get a feel for certain courses.”

According to the USAT website, in 1996 96 per cent of instructors released evaluation results to students. In 2005, the figure dropped to 61 per cent.

“Results are seen by department heads and professors. It is [the professor’s] prerogative to release the results,” Welsh said. “USAT then sends AMS the data.”

Gajen Perry, ArtSci ’07, said he thinks all results should be released, no matter what.

“We should be able to look back at the evaluations,” he said. “Professors talk about [the results] all the time but who reads them? That’s what discourages me when I do the evaluations.”

Yip said he thinks professors should have the right to control the release of results.

“If they get a bad result, I hope they improve, but I don’t want to screw them over,” he said.

Welsh said there are a variety of reasons professors don’t choose to release evaluation results. One reason might be “professor solidarity,” he said.

He added that some professors may not be favourable to comments.

“Some professors don’t feel the questions are evaluating them properly and don’t want to post them,” he said.

Janet Gordon, ArtSci ’06, said that whether the full results should be released depends on the purpose of USAT.

“If it is used for students, then the results should be released,” she said. “But if the results are used to help professors, then they have the right not to release them.”

Students who visit the USAT site at queensu.ca/registrar/usat/ looking for evaluation results will be led to an AMS USAT website, which is currently under construction. The results haven’t been made available to students in past years, but Welsh said the AMS is working to improve the system.

“Ideally, from a student perspective, the system would be 100 per cent transparent and we would see the results,” he said.

The joint committee will meet this term and Welsh hopes that the new AMS USAT website will be ready in January 2006.

“The ability to evaluate your professors is extremely important as a student,” he said. “It allows us to take a more active role in the education we receive.

“In the past, things have gotten lost in the shuffle, but now there’s the reinvention of the website to make it more accessible. There will be a grand unveiling, and we want this to be a great resource for students.”

Patrick Deane, vice-principal (academic), said he couldn’t yet comment on concerns over USAT or the evaluation of the system, as the committee has not yet convened. —With files from assu.sa.utoronto.ca

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