This article was published by McMaster’s Silhouette newspaper here.
Spring has arrived. Rain is pouring, flowers are blooming, chipmunks are chirping – and, of course, professors are shilling course evaluations. The stench of desperation hangs atop these earnest diatribes, as vague notions of ‘importance’ and ‘necessity’ are flung about in the evaluations’ favour. I don’t doubt McMaster’s honesty; I believe the staff examine the evaluations, and I believe they feel they are important. However, the student body possesses understandable cynicism regarding these assessments. After all, why bother filling them in when no concrete solutions are ever reached from their completion? It’s hardly unreasonable to request transparency regarding these ‘all-important’ appraisals.
At any rate, one cannot shake the feeling that McMaster is fighting a losing battle. Since the school switched from paper to online evaluations, response rates have plummeted by almost 80%. The situation has become so dire that many professors now offer incentives, such as bonus marks, to complete them. Aside from the questionable ethics of such a practise, it opens new worm cans: if I’m filling in an evaluation form because I was incentivized, will my response be as forthcoming or comprehensive as one who completed it of his own volition? Will the incentive itself taint the rating in some way? Further, how far will these ‘incentives’ go? Are we caught in a Hedonic treadmill of enticement? Soon, profs will be offering up steak dinners and diamond necklaces.
McMaster itself is largely to blame for this course eval-ennui. As Scott Hastie noted in an article for last year’s Silhouette, Mac’s “Policy on the Public Release of Students’ Ratings of Teaching Effectiveness” governs what is and is not released, and the only answer that can go public is ‘how would you rate your professor overall?’ Even worse, professors must opt-in for the release of this information.
This policy is antithetical to the purported purpose of course evaluations. Evaluations are supposed to be “critical to future course development and instructor assessment processes,” but if that’s the case, then why do we, the students, never hear of results stemming from their completion? If McMaster really wants more students to fill out course evaluations, it needs to remove the cloak of secrecy enshrouding them. It’s understandable that students would be less than enthused about filling in a survey that is ejected into a nebulous ether and never heard from again.
And the need for publicized course evaluations goes beyond student innervation. It would be wonderful for future students to be able to read course responses on MOSAIC when they are choosing classes. Not sure which elective to take? Wondering if you need to buy the textbook? Curious about the workload? This information could, and should, be readily available.