Change needed for evaluations

It is the time of the semester when UAA students are asked to take a few minutes, break out a No. 2 pencil and fill in the dots of the university’s student evaluation forms. A few fill out the forms diligently but most that do stick around complete the paperwork hastily and scurry out. It’s not uncommon to see half the class leave without filling anything out.

Who can blame them for leaving? When does anyone actually use the information to choose a class or pick a professor?

Not very often, apparently. A circulation desk worker at the Consortium Library estimates the evaluations are viewed once a day at the most. Most UAA students resort to asking friends or fellow students about classes and professors.

Those students that do make it to the library, the Learning Resource Center or the Administration Building to look up evaluations probably won’t like what they find. The information is stored in heavy white binders behind the circulation desk at the library. It is actually easy to access if you know to ask at the desk. But crack open a binder and pages of raw data in eight-point font will confront you. You’ve got some patience if you don’t get a headache after five minutes.

Something isn’t right about students going to our self-proclaimed “library of the 21st century” and sorting through big white binders for information. In the Internet age, why isn’t the evaluation information available online?

According to a June 2003 Northern Light article, evaluations were supposed to be available on WolfLink by Spring 2004. So what happened?

Union of Students vice president Michael Blanton, then a USUAA senator, spearheaded the effort to get the information online and more accessible to students.

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“I thought these should be in an online format,” Blanton said. “It’s only fair since students fill these out that we get information back.”

But over a year has passed and WolfLink is still evaluation-free. Blanton said he thought he had done everything needed.

“The ball was rolling and I was under the impression that nothing else from student government needed to be done,” he said.

To Blanton’s credit, it seems he had done everything. But two circumstances have held up the process.

Blanton worked on the project with then-Provost Jim Chapman, who departed the UAA in June. Chapman’s departure meant the provost position was largely inactive until Ted Kassier was named to the post Sept. 14. Blanton said he isn’t sure where Kassier stands on the issue. Barbara Tullis, faculty services manager for Academic Affairs, said the provost remains favorable on the project.

The other problem facing the project was the needed approval by UAA’s Faculty Senate. Tullis said that the project was put on the backburner of the senate agenda.

Director of Information Technology Services Peter Rock said that once the project is approved it would take his department about six months to get the information up and running on WolfLink.

But will this information even be that helpful online? It will definitely improve the current situation but changes are needed to the evaluation instrument itself.

Unlike private Websites such as RateMyProfessors.com (see page 7), the university only shows students the numbers breakdown from the fill-in-the-dots portion of the evaluation known as the Student Description Information System. Missing is the blue sheet that contains a comments portion that allows students more freedom to answer. Those responses are the ones students want the most. But the blue sheets are returned to the department for review and then given to professors after grades have been issued. They are also used by administration during tenure evaluations.

The SDIS form is too diluted with questions students don’t really care about. Do you need to know how effectively a professor uses visual aids or whether they speak clearly? Probably not. It’s more likely you want to know simply if or if not students recommend the professor, which is on the form but you have to sort through the rest of the data to find it.

The good news is that while the Faculty Senate hasn’t worked to push the current system onto WolfLink, it has examined whether the system is effective in the first place.

The senate formed an ad hoc committee on the SDIS system in June 2004. The five-person committee, chaired by English professor Jeff White, set out to find an alternative to the SDIS by looking at four different evaluation instruments. The committee presented their findings at the Nov. 5 Faculty Senate meeting and recommended UAA move to the Individual Development and Educational Assessment (IDEA) survey system developed at Kansas State University.

The IDEA instrument features “flexible” questioning, requires faculty to provide information about course objectives and has online and campus versions. Now the Faculty Senate has to review the IDEA program and make a decision by the end of the Spring 2005 semester.

In the meantime, UAA students will be left with the current system. So if you want to check up on a professor or class, head to the library of the 21st century but don’t forget your magnifying glass. Oh, and watch out for paper cuts.