College changes teaching evaluations

Starting in the fall of 2019, students will complete Student Course Survey (SCS) forms online. While the form will be administered online, the blue sheets of paper that provide commentary for the instructor will still be administered in class. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Evaluation of Teaching of 2016-2017 implemented this change. The committee was originally tasked with “thinking broadly about the question of what constitutes good teaching, and how we as an institution evaluate teaching,” according to chair of the committee and Professor of History Eiko Maruko Siniawer ’97. The committee’s goal was to assess the methods that the College uses to evaluate teaching and take a closer look at how they are all related.

“We did not begin our work focused solely on the SCS form, or on the issue of whether or not it should be moved online,” Siniawer said. “As the committee’s ideas evolved, and as we talked with faculty and staff colleagues, a new SCS form took shape.”

After looking at the new SCS, the committee decided it would be much easier to complete it online than on paper. “The new SCS form solicits qualitative comments and includes tailored questions; for various reasons, this format is most effectively administered online,” Siniawer said. The Ad Hoc committee of 2015-2016 also looked at the SCS and thought about moving it online; however, it was not done until the 2016-2017 committee changed the form. Many peer institutions already conduct course evaluations online.

While SCS forms will not move to an online format for all students until fall 2019, the committee recommended a pilot program in order to detect potential problems. This pilot program would occur during the 2018-2019 school year.

In the spring of 1971, a voluntary college-wide course evaluation form was administered and was used regularly by the fall of 1972. In 1988, the faculty voted to make mandatory the SCS form as well as student interviews, which are interviews that the tenured faculty conduct of students enrolled in a course as a method of evaluation. In 1992, the SCS was edited and it became required to supplement it with another way of gathering student opinion, such as interviews or questionnaires.

“Indeed, before last year, the College had not done a holistic review of all of the methods of evaluating teaching since 1992,” Siniawer said. The current SCS form was implemented in a faculty vote in 2005 and has been in use ever since.

Across departments there are variations in how teaching is evaluated, and the standards and procedures for the evaluation of teaching are outlined in the Faculty Handbook. For the most part, all use a combination of the SCS form as well as student interviews, questionnaires and class visits.

“As part of the Ad Hoc Committee’s work, we brought forward for faculty consideration changes that emphasize the value of using multiple and different methods of evaluation to form a holistic picture of a faculty member’s teaching,” Siniawer said. In the fall of 2018, units must use three different methods to evaluate the teaching of untenured faculty members. They will include the SCS form, a method other than SCS for gathering individual student opinion and a method for peer review that involves observing teaching. To gather student opinion, units can use tools such as student interviews or questionnaires and, to observe teaching, evaluative measures such as class visits can occur. Right now, the Faculty Handbook only requires usage of the SCS, so this is an alteration to previous protocol.

“Students should, then, be aware not just of the importance of the SCS form, but also of a questionnaire should they be asked to fill one out for a given instructor/course and of an interview should they be invited to offer their thoughts on a given instructor/course,” Siniawer said. “And students should consider it a regular practice for a faculty evaluator to be present in some sessions of a class they are taking, as part of the process of conducting class visits.”

It is important to note that this is applicable only to the evaluation of faculty teaching and not research and scholarship, which have other methods of evaluation.

The College will significantly delay students’ access to their grades if they do not complete their SCS forms for every course that they are enrolled in.

Siniawer is not concerned with a reduction in response rates as a result of the change. “At peer institutions with a similar incentive, the response rates for online administration of evaluations are around what they currently are here at Williams,” Siniawer said.