By Julie France and Erin Mershon
Starting this spring, students will evaluate their professors the same way they evaluate restaurants and books: online. Replacing paper evaluations, an anonymous online survey will open April 30 and run through May 6 this year.
The evaluations, run by the website SmartEvals, will include the same questions that the paper evaluations did, as well as some additional questions requiring narrative comments. Professors or departments can choose from among a list of suggested questions or create their own for specific courses. Nothing but the traditional bubble-in responses will be used when faculty are considered for promotion and tenure.
What I find is very useful is narrative course evaluations that we make up ourselves, Associate Professor of Biology Wade Powell said. … [The Colleges official questionnaire] doesnt provide information that I can act on.
The new format makes gathering personal responses easier. By going electronic, it actually increases and enhances our ability to collect narrative information, said Associate Provost and Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield, who is currently facilitating the new online evaluation changes. SmartEvals will also allow professors to aggregate data over several years, giving faculty a more systematic, all-encompassing view of what works and what doesnt in their courses.
[If you have the data] easily available in a program where you can go and seize the responses and look at them over time, thats a whole lot easier than [if] each time they come you have to compile them, Associate Provost and Professor of Political Science Joseph Klesner said.
Students who evaluate each of their courses online will also have an added incentive they will be able to view their course grades two weeks earlier than those who dont.
Likewise, students who fail to complete an evaluation for a class will be denied access to the grade for that class for a specified period of time after grades generally have been made available to students, Sheffield said.
Though a decline in response rates is a concern, administrators expect the incentives and email reminders will keep responses steady.
Youre not captive in the classroom when youre filling them out, and so that means theres a little bit more initiative on the part of students, Klesner said. The evaluations including narrative questions will be kept short, so students arent overwhelmed by how long the evaluations take, he said.
The College first offered online evaluations in 2004 but discontinued the practice in 2007 because of technological issues. The technology wasnt ready for us. We had a very clunky system, and its clunkiness resulted in … a lower response rate, Sheffield said.
Sheffield hopes technological improvements will make the evaluation process easier by removing the excess time and resources necessary to tabulate the paper evaluations. It still takes time to have people load [paper evaluations] and correct those if they go in a crooked fashion. It throws off the whole lot. Its just ridiculous, he said.
Still, some have concerns about the return to online evaluations and worry that the new evaluations will receive impolite, extreme comments similar to those on websites like RateMyProfessors.com.
I do think people were surprised by the negativity of the comments [on the old online evaluations] and thats why we got rid of it quickly, said Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen, a member on the deciding board for online course evaluations.
In order to prevent such comments, we are going to … limit the time when students can do these, Murnen said. We dont want them doing them at two in the morning because we think that maybe there would be less serious stuff going on at two in the morning.
Instead, access to the evaluation system will be restricted to limited hours between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., according to the informational document on the new system.
What Im hoping for, quite frankly, in the return of online course evaluations is a shift in culture at Kenyon, Sheffield said. What Id like to see happen is that we begin to construct a culture at the College that says that student participation in getting feedback and input is every bit a part of ones education as attending class.