By Melissa Vach
Arts & Entertainment Editor
The end of every semester at Viterbo University is marked by the distribution of course evaluations (evals). Until the 2011-2012 academic year, these evaluations were completed during class-time via paper; now course evaluations are available online.
“Some students complained that with the comments being handwritten, professors might be able to identify them,” Barbara Gayle, academic vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of Graduate Studies, told Lumen. “We moved to electronic course evals that are collected by an off-site vendor and not delivered to faculty until a week after grades have been turned in to the registrar.”
“It’s the 21st century way to do it,” Keith Knutson, professor of History and chair of the Faculty Council, told Lumen.
“We’re doing (evals) in a technological way by going online, and the environmental significance is unquestioned,” Knutson continued, referencing how much paper is saved through the new process.
In the paper system, scantron sheets were run through a machine which would tally responses, and copies were made of the comments for records in not only the academic vice president’s office, but in the administrative offices of each of the schools at Viterbo, according to Gayle.
“Now the evals are sent electronically with access by my office, the dean, the chair, and the faculty member,” Gayle said. “(Evals) are now complete with statistics, which they weren’t before, and have readable anonymous comments. In the first method, what we paid in paper, scantron forms, and wages I believe far exceeded the price of course evals (now).”
The current annual price for the online system of course evaluations is $8400.
“Some colleagues were opposed to going online,” Knutson said. “I think some of my colleagues had studied the transition to online evals. Some of our faculty are very attuned to online developments, even on the impact on how we behave.
“(The faculty council) took a majority vote and it wasn’t close,” Knutson continued. “Our lives are so much online, it would be a backwards-looking decision to stick with paper.”
And yet, participation rates have dropped nationwide for universities that have made the transition to an online evaluation system, according to Gretel Stock-Kupperman, library director and assistant professor, told Lumen.
“We’re a bit higher than 40 percent,” Stock-Kupperman said. She assists in the technological processes of administering and collecting the online course evaluations. She recently participated in a webinar that discussed a long term study of course evals from UCLA.
“(UCLA) had gone from an 80 to 40 percent response rate,” Stock-Kupperman said. “The range of like/dislike ratings was about the same. Between print and online, results were extremely similar.”
Viterbo’s paper eval response percent in the fall of 2011 was 70 percent, according to Faculty Council minutes from the February 11, 2014 council meeting. The average response rate from online evals last year was 45 percent.
“Initially the online participation was pretty close to (the paper response rate), but now it’s down,” Knutson said.
“The drop rate tends to be between 20 to 50 percent, depending on the institution and per semester,” Stock-Kupperman said.
The Viterbo student organization Enactus made a push in the first semester of online evaluations to promote the process alongside faculty, helping boost the response percentage to around 70 percent, according to Stock-Kupperman.
“The (response rate) percentage has gone up and down since then as people have either gotten used to (the system) or forgotten about it,” Stock-Kupperman continued.
“(Professors) understand when a student doesn’t take an online evaluation, because maybe (students) have been busy or they just forgot,” Sara Cook, chair of the promotion and tenure committee and assistant dean/director of the MBA program, told Lumen. “But when you have people who care about being better teachers, it’s frustrating not getting feedback. I keep my evals, so the idea is, this information is used to help (me) develop as a professor.
“Student evaluations are one piece we look at when we’re trying to understand a faculty’s teaching performance,” Cook said. “Low student evaluation (response percentages) don’t help anyone. It’s just a great opportunity for faculty to learn how to improve. When response rates are low, we hear from the most happy and least happy. This provides a distorted image to the (promotion and tenure) committee.”
Student evaluations are considered more highly in the promotion and tenure process because Viterbo is a teaching school, Cook said, as opposed to a research institute like the University of Minnesota where scholarship plays a much larger role in whether or not a faculty receives a promotion or tenure.
“Evaluation’s are the faculty’s, so the faculty get them, the faculty are responsible for reviewing them; they own that as part of the promotion and tenure process,” Stock-Kupperman said.
“Personally, when the messages come in to me that the evals are available, I announce it in the classroom,” Knutson said. “It is a matter of us reminding and encouraging our students to take these evals.
“The first time we did it (online), we put on these buttons for two weeks, and it was kind of a reminder to us to remind students,” Knutson continued.
“There has been some discussion, in the typical American fashion, in rewarding students, possibly in drawings,” Knutson said of efforts to increase student participation.
“Incentives can be positive,” Stock-Kupperman said, “but not really sustained. There are some who have said that we should hold grades, but that’s not really ethical.”
“No faculty wants to incentivize taking evaluations; you don’t want to bias the results,” Cook said.
There are not enough computer labs available on the Viterbo campus, however, for every class to take class-time to fill out evaluations at the same time, according to Stock-Kupperman. Other options do exist though if a faculty wants to take class-time to have students fill out evaluations, she continued, mentioning that there are iPads or computers available from the library.
“I don’t see this as a political issue, but an ownership issue in how your education is delivered to you,” Knutson said. “This is a prerogative that students won out of the 1960s out of the Vitenam protest movement, students’ rights movement…It was a hard-fought victory for students, but that’s half-a-century ago. This is one of those legacy opportunities that not all students have had through history.
“Students should ask themselves, what are the evaluations about?” Knutson continued. “Administrators and then we the faculty try to follow the national discussion about what works in education, what topics are most vital in education.
“I don’t know if students follow this kind of discussion,” Knutson said. “What are students doing in evaluations? Hopefully giving valuable feedback to us. Students should not hire or fire the professors, but the input factors into decision-making; this is an area where students have input. It’s a little discouraging that participation rates are down.”