Faculty explain importance of student evaluations

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Faculty explain importance of student evaluations

Students are reminded repeatedly to fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester.

Students are reminded repeatedly to fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester.

Sanjali De Silva | Senior Staff Photographer

Students are reminded repeatedly to fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester.

Sanjali De Silva | Senior Staff Photographer

Sanjali De Silva | Senior Staff Photographer

Students are reminded repeatedly to fill out course evaluations at the end of the semester.

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Before the close of each semester, students receive an email reminding them to complete their course evaluations. While these forms may be tempting to scroll past, they provide vital feedback for professors to improve course experiences for students.

“They’re very valuable as tools for both deans and chairs, the people who review these and the faculty members themselves because each of us looks at these to try to find out where are the strengths, where are the areas that might benefit from additional attention and focus,” Dean and Professor of Architecture Kenneth Schwartz said.

These evaluations allow for faculty to be self-critical and reevaluate the practices they implement in the classroom, but they also aid the leaders of a department in considering how to improve overall curriculum.

“They have another function which is more broad-based, and that is that they help us to understand how the curriculum is working,” Schwartz said. “It’s not just an issue of how an individual faculty member is teaching, but it gives you a lens through which you can see what’s happening in the course of the curriculum.”

According to Senior Associate Dean LuAnn White, course evaluations do not measure the quality of faculty. Rather, department heads use these evaluations to assess student satisfaction with courses and help identify teaching issues within a course or determine courses that need improvement.

“Course evaluations are a tool for improvement and are not used in a punitive manner,” White stated via email. “We purposely design the evaluations to focus on the course, teaching methods, course organization et cetera, rather than the individual instructor. This approach is much more effective to improve courses and teaching.”

According to Jessica Shedd, assistant provost for assessment and institutional research, the overall response rate for the Fall 2017 semester across the university was 57 percent.  The schools with the highest response rates were the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine with 65 percent, the School of Medicine with 61 percent and the School of Science and Engineering with 61 percent.  

While response rates vary across different schools and courses, Professor Chad Van Schoelandt of the Philosophy Department said he has experienced 100 percent response rates in some of his classes. The average response rate he receives is around 75 percent.

Junior Emma Campbell said she is more likely to complete a course evaluation if she had a particularly good or bad experience with the course.  

“If I thought the class was pretty mediocre or don’t think my evaluation would be especially useful I am less likely to do it,” Campbell said.

To encourage higher response rates, Van Schoelandt makes announcements both in-class and via email, including setting aside class time for students to complete their evaluations. According to Van Schoelandt, specific constructive criticism helps him more than vague complaints about a course.

“I emphasize to my students that the evaluations are important to me and particularly, that I carefully read every one and make adjustments to my courses in light of their feedback” Van Schoelandt said. “As part of this, I specifically ask them to provide constructive criticism to help me improve the course.”

Examples of how Van Schoelandt has improved his courses based on student evaluation feedback include adjusting assigned readings for a course, integrating homework to accompany readings and reimplementing course tactics for which students expressed enthusiasm.

Schwartz said while he has encountered inappropriate comments or misuse of evaluation forms at other institutions, he has not experienced an issue with this during his time at the Architecture School at Tulane. He credits this to the community built within the Architecture Department, a community in which he feels people care for one another and treat each other with mutual respect.

“It’s probably a tribute both to our faculty and to our students,” Schwartz said. “We have a very tight community. It’s one of the great things about any school of architecture. We tend to be small, and there’s a really clear sense of identity that you’re part of this community.”

Cam Lutz contributed to the reporting of this article.