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Westminster implements revised course evaluation instrument to elicit more objective feedback

A pie chart shows the percentage of personal comments on teacher evaluations before the implementation of a revised survey tool.
University of Oregon analyses on teacher evaluations found personal comments occurred at a frequency of 21% before implementing the End-of-course Student Experience Survey, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage. The university ran pilot tests and deployed the E-SES tool campus-wide for one year before official implementation. Photo courtesy of Ella Viesturs. Image Description: A pie chart shows that 21% of comments on teacher evaluations were personal comments before the implementation of a revised survey tool.

In the 2021 Spring semester, Westminster College implemented a revised course evaluation instrument after faculty voted to amend the previous survey-based evaluation system Oct. 2020, according to Westminster’s Student Course Feedback Protocol. 

Westminster hopes the new instrument will elicit more objective and less biased feedback, according to Spencer Bagley, faculty senator of the Student Course Feedback Workgroup and associate professor of mathematics at Westminster.

Faculty now have the choice of implementing one or both of two revised feedback processes. One is a Small Group Instructional Feedback process, which outlines small group feedback discussions during class. The second process is an End-Student Experience Survey comprises questions redesigned to avoid personal comments and bias against minority faculty, according to the protocol.

There is widespread research revealing systemic bias in certain course evaluation designs, according to Bagley. 

“It’s a well-documented research finding that numerical scores on student course feedback are systematically biased against various groups of professors,” Bagley said. “Minority faculty in whatever discipline, women, people of color, people who teach in quantitative disciplines, like mathematics or other STEM fields system, [and younger faculty].”

In addition to disproportionate bias towards minority faculty, the old course evaluation design allowed students to make irrelevant, yet concerning personal comments towards faculty, according to Bagley.

A pie chart shows the percentage of personal comments on teacher evaluations after the implementation of a revised survey tool
Image Description: A pie chart shows that 1.5% of comments on teacher evaluations were personal comments after the implementation of a revised survey tool.
University of Oregon analyses found that the frequency of personal comments decreased to 1.5% after the implementation of the End-of-course Student Experience Survey tool, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage. The university ran pilot tests and deployed the E-SES tool campus-wide for one year before official implementation. Photo courtesy of Ella Viesturs. Image Description: A pie chart shows that 1.5% of comments on teacher evaluations were personal comments after the implementation of a revised survey tool.

“There was also the issue […] that people have received – can I swear? – pretty shitty feedback,” Bagley said. “Even to the extent of messages that have made professors feel unsafe. Those have been few and far between, but they have an outsize impact, of course.”

The revised course evaluation instrument was redesigned with the hopes of highlighting objective, in-classroom practices by targeting questions towards specific features of a course, such as quality of course material and student-professor communication, according to the protocol.

The survey also asks how students supported themselves by prompting them to answer how often they attended class, according to the protocol.

Westminster’s End-of-course Student Experience Survey evaluation instrument was adopted from the University of Oregon. 

The University of Oregon’s Continuous Improvement and Evaluation of Teaching committee developed and implemented a revised evaluation tool in April 2019, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage.

The university scrutinized the E-SES tool via yearlong pilot testing and campus-wide deployment, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage.

Analyses found the new survey increased student comment by 60%, decreased the frequency of personal comments from 21% to 1.5%, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage.

The Small-Group Instructional Feedback evaluation method was adopted from Miami University and University of South Alabama, according to Westminster’s Student Course Feedback protocol.

Unlike the online E-SES evaluation tool, SGIF evaluation method is an in-person experience wherein students engage in a structured discussion about the class at hand, according to the protocol. 

In-person conversation aims to increase accountability and civil discourse, and mitigate personally offensive or biased comments, according to the protocol.

Westminster Provost Debbie Tahmassebi, who is the chief academic officer, was involved in the process of redesigning the college’s course evaluations.

Tahmassebi said students’ lived experience in the classroom is a very important piece of evidence when it comes to evaluating faculty members. 

A pie chart shows the percentage of positive student comments on teacher evaluations.
 University of Oregon analyses found that 61% of student comments were positive after the implementation of the End-of-course Student Experience Survey tool, according to University of Oregon’s Revising UO’s Teaching Evaluations webpage. The university ran pilot tests and deployed the E-SES tool campus-wide for one year before official implementation. Photo courtesy of Ella Viesturs. Image Description: A pie chart shows that 61% of comments on teacher evaluations were positive comments after the implementation of a revised survey tool.

“There has to be an opportunity for students to share their classroom experiences,” Tahmassebi said. “I personally support a holistic evaluation of teaching. There should be more than one piece of evidence or data that’s associated with that feedback.”

Senior geology major Olivia Colton said she thinks it is possible and important to be honest on course evaluations while simultaneously refraining from making personal comments. 

“If I don’t like a class, I will give my honest opinion,” Colton said. “Whether or not I like a class or the teaching, I never have negative thoughts on the teacher on a personal level. I think it is possible and important to be constructive rather than disrespectful while writing evaluations because of the possible offense or impact it could have on a professor.”

Provost Tahmassebi said she hopes the new format will make evaluations a more helpful mode of feedback for Westminster faculty to partake in continuous improvement moving forward. 

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