The University of Oregon is changing course evaluations to make them more useful and eliminate implicit bias. The changes, if approved, will remove the number-based rating systems that are in place and replace them with more specific questions that require written answers.
“Those scores have nothing to [do] with how much a student learns in a class and that’s really problematic because our intent as [a] university is to try to get better at teaching,” said Bill Harbaugh, Teaching Evaluation Task Force co-chairman and Senate vice president.
The UO Faculty Senate has been working on making changes to course evaluations since last May, when the Senate formed a task force to improve them. ASUO Election Commissioner Ram Sharma says that he thinks UO should make more people aware of the possible changes before going through with them.
From May 1 to May 3, the university will hold a series of four town halls, each one focused on informing a specific part of the campus community. The town halls will also be used to gather feedback about the upcoming changes.
The decision to improve evaluations came after Harbaugh discovered a study that showed trends of discrimination in college course evaluations.
“If this information is not telling us what is good teaching then we have to wonder why we are collecting it and fix the way we are collecting it,” Harbaugh said.
In the winter term, UO began testing the new format of course evaluations in about 20 courses that were taught by faculty who have been involved in changing the course evaluation process. The format being tested incorporates some of the proposed changes and ask students to share three things that are going well in the class and three things that aren’t.
“It focuses them to think about specific issues rather than general ‘did you like this class’ kind of questions,” Harbaugh said.
One additional change that will be made is removal of the long wait for grades for students who don’t fill out course evaluations.
The task force is also looking to change when the evaluations are done and are planning to move the main evaluation to the middle of the term. In this case, the information from evaluations would be immediately available to the faculty member teaching the class.
In addition to students evaluating teachers, UO has teachers observe and review each other’s classes.
“It’s not very well organized, so different professors use different systems for doing that, and we suspect that those evaluations are not really any more accurate than the student evaluations,” Harbaugh said.
UO is also planning to improve the way these evaluations are done by creating specific questions about the teacher’s performance during the class.
“I think most faculty are enthusiastic about the idea of replacing numerical scores,” Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh said that many of the students the task force has talked to don’t understand the purpose of course evaluations. Sharma said that course evaluations are important to students because it gives them a chance to be open about the quality of teaching that classes and teachers offer.
The Senate plans to vote on a resolution to make the changes official sometime before the end of spring term and have the changes take effect for the entire university beginning in fall term of next school year.
Harbaugh said that he is concerned about low response rate if the new changes go through because one student providing useful feedback can help improve teaching.