The university faculty senate is working to create less biased and more informative course evaluations through a targeted task force and increased student input.
Last May, the University senate discovered sexist and racist correlations in the results of student course evaluations. Senate president Chris Sinclair appointed a task force to address the issue and conduct further research last June. The findings confirmed that course evaluations bred biased and misleading information regarding both student success rates and instructor performances.
Senate President Chris Sinclair appointed Bill Harbaugh and Sierra Dawson as co-chairs of the teaching evaluation task force to solve the issue going forward, and plan to include student perspectives in the creation of less biased questions.
Intensive research from universities across the country contributed to the senate’s conclusions. The findings suggested instructors who are women or people of color are receiving lower teaching evaluation scores overall, despite the higher student performance in not only entry-level courses, but advanced courses as well.
The main issue lies in the types of questions asked in the evaluations. The report analyzed “the influence of a variety of factors commonly hypothesized to bias [Student Evaluations of Teaching] scores,” and investigated the relationship between this data and the student’s performance. The report concluded that “the conflicting evidence surrounding the relationship between academic rank and SET scores suggests that this bias may in fact exist.”
Co-chair of the teaching evaluation task force Bill Harbaugh stated, “We want to make sure that the questions measure something useful, and we want to make sure that the questions are not biased against women or minorities.”
Current course evaluation questions focus more on whether a student liked a course or liked a professor, rather than if that teacher was successful in teaching the students or if the students actually learned something.
Harbaugh went on to conclude that the current course evaluation questions are “not just not helpful, but are actively harmful.”
Changing the course evaluations will assist teachers in gauging what their students are learning and which teaching methods are most effective. “The questions that we ask don’t lead to changes,” Harbaugh stated. The data could and does negatively affect future job acquisition for professors, as well as their job security at the University of Oregon.
In regards to the biases of the students, University senate president Chris Sinclair said, “Once we say there are equity issues in these evaluations, most fair-minded people will say, ‘Okay yes, there’s a problem there; let’s change it.'”
Sinclair said that “students these days are very intelligent about diversity and equity issues,” and hopes that students are sympathetic of these changes.
The senate is experimenting with various new ideas to improve the evaluations. Sinclair proposed in-class evaluations or even less frequent ones to ensure that students answer these improved questions fully and honestly. For example, he suggested having students evaluate one instructor per term rather than all of their instructors.
Sinclair emphasized the importance of student input to these evaluations as well. The senate is planning to include student input for the new evaluations and hopes to engage with their ideas in town hall meetings throughout the next year.
“In no way are we trying to take away the voice of students,” Sinclair said.