Section: News

Course feedback may be limited in scope

By Julie France

During final exams it can be a lot to ask of students to take a moment from studying to fill out course evaluations — and even more so to take the time to write a well thought-out response. But while 90 to 92 percent of Kenyon students do complete all of their course evaluations at the end of every semester, their efforts may not be going toward what they expected.

“I’m assuming that the administration reviews [the course evaluations and] then, unless the students say something very poor about the professor, they wouldn’t do anything about it,” Lea England ’16 said. “But, if the student does say something about a professor, then I’m assuming they talk to them.”

In actuality, if a student chooses to express concerns about a professor in one of the supplemental, narrative questions, administrators never see those answers.

Kenyon’s website only specifies the supplemental course evaluation questions “will not become part of the official review dossier used by department chairs, the provost and [the] Tenure and Promotion Committee.”

“We have the program set up so that even if I want to see it, as the provost, I can’t,” Interim Provost Joe Klesner said. “That’s so that faculty can feel confident that they can ask some questions that might, in some situations, indicate that this project or this lecture didn’t go so well. The whole idea is that they can learn from it and improve for the next time and also not to be afraid that this will somehow affect their relationship with the College.”

Some students expressed concerns, though, that this policy eliminates an avenue to report violations of college policy.
“My professor told us to all meet her at 12:30 [p.m. for class] rather than 1:10, and technically you can’t do that,” a student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. Though extending classes before the allotted time is against College regulations, many students rely on the faculty course evaluations at the end of each semester as the proper means of notifying the College of such problems.

Chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee and Professor of French Mort Guiney offered a different course of action for students who think their voices have not been heard.

“If a student had a serious complaint about the teaching in a particular course with a professor, the two avenues that I think the student could pursue would be to talk to the chair of the professor’s department and another one … would be to talk to the next person who is responsible in the administration for the academic mission of the College, and that would be the provost,” Guiney said.

“In the end, if the College isn’t even looking at [the course evaluations] except to review for tenure and promotion, then what’s the point in even doing [course evaluations]?” England said. “That just seems kind of ridiculous, the whole system.”
Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessey said, “I think students are fair about [evaluations]; they may be mad or they may be disappointed with how they performed in a class, but I’ve never felt like anyone retaliated by giving you low, low scores. So I think people take it seriously and understand sort of what it’s about.”

Though responses to the required multiple choice questions ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” are visible to the administration, only the Tenure and Promotion Committee uses the information when considering the tenure and promotion of a faculty member. No additional disciplinary action is taken upon professors with consistently bad reviews.

However, the College presents the results of these questions to each professor by way of a bar graph that shows how many responses there were under “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” for each question.

“The individual faculty members see it that way, not as a mean score or average at all … obviously you could do the math with that result, but we don’t provide it that way to the faculty because the faculty have felt that over summarizing results in just an average … is reducing the information too much so that they don’t get a full picture of what happens in a course,” Klesner said.
Fennessey said she constantly takes into account her course evaluation results because of the ever-changing nature of her field.

“I read somewhere that the amount of information in the sciences doubles every five years,” she said. “So, textbooks are constantly being revised, information added, so there are always new things to bring people up to date on.”

As for changing the course evaluation process, revising the standard questions doesn’t look likely.

“We’ve talked about the possibility of going back and looking at those questions,” Guiney said. “Not [to] necessarily change them, but seeing if those are the best questions, if that’s the best way of eliciting information from the students.

“But, it’s a very long-term idea,” he added. “I don’t think it’s going to happen this year.”

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