As colleges and universities wind up for the winter break, many students are filling out evaluations, rating their instructors. This fall, students at two northern campuses - one in Duluth and one in Superior - asked to see the results of those surveys. Students say they pay thousands in tuition, and ought to know what their fellow students think of professors before they sign up for classes. But Minnesota and Wisconsin laws are different, so students in Superior will see the evaluation results, while students in Duluth won't. Minnesota students responded by organizing their own instructor evaluations.
SOMETIME DURING THESE LAST DAYS of the semester, instructors at both universities will hand out surveys, and students will take a few minutes to fill them out. The surveys ask if the instructor was enthusiastic. They ask if the instructor was an effective speaker, and available to students who had questions.
Some of the evaluation results go into instructors' files. Administrators look at them when they're deciding who gets tenure, and who gets promoted. The instructors are free to look at their own evaluations, even encouraged to look at them. But students never see the results.
In his office in the UMD chemistry building, Prof. Ron Caple digs through a file drawer stuffed with student comments he's collected over the years. Caple says students don't take evaluations seriously unless they get to see the results. Every semester he asks students to write down what they think of the administration-run evaluations. And every semester, Caple says, the students gripe.
"Every single time I've received one, it's always been before a test, before a final or something," notes senior Anna Gybina. I'm sure a lot of other students don't take the time to read the questions. Just pick a section, a category, and go down and fill out all the multiple choice the same way, so you can get it over with, and study for your test for an extra three minutes."
Gybina says she'd be more thorough if she got to see the survey results. So, with hopes of giving students a greater stake in the evaluations, this fall, UMD student leaders asked if they could publish the evaluation results. Coincidentally, in neighboring Superior, students at the University of Wisconsin campus were asking the same thing. But because state laws are different, students on the two campuses got different answers.
Wisconsin state law makes the evaluation results public documents. When Aaron Brown, the editor of the UW-Superior student paper, heard that from the state attorney general's office, he requested that the administration release the records. The administration agreed.
"Let's open them up and at least have a history of having these things open for future students. We just thought it was something that should be done," Brown said.
Brown says the student paper will publish a condensed version of the UWS survey results beginning spring semester.
But across the harbor, students at UMD got different news. Minnesota law says those evaluation results are private, personnel records; students can't look at them. So members of the UMD Student Association decided to craft their own evaluation, give it to students, and publish the results.
About a week ago, in a crowded lecture hall, Student Association Vice President Christen Jechorek passed out a trial version of the student-run evaluation to 200 chemistry students.
Jechorek hopes to hand out evaluations next semester in several first-year courses - like general biology, and principles of economics. She says those big, introductory classes are taught by several different instructors, so students could use the survey information to help them choose which professor they want. She says a student who likes lectures can pick an instructor who lectures, while another student can pick someone who holds lots of class discussions.
"It's not going to actually be that this teacher got super-high ratings and this teacher got that," Jechorek said. "It's more of just matching students with their learning abilities and styles to other teacher's teaching styles."
Jechorek did the trial run of the evaluation in one of Prof. Ron Caple's classes. Caple praises the students for launching their own evaluation. He says students deserve to know how fellow students rate UMD instructors.
"They are finally going to have some data saying who the good professors are and who the bad ones are. But I think that in terms of evaluating teaching effectiveness, I doubt it does that. I doubt it's going to lead to an improvement of the quality of teaching on this campus," Caple said.
While he supports the student-run survey, Caple says instructors need more than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down at the end of the semester if they hope to improve their teaching.
That's the same argument Prof. LeAne Rutherford makes. Rutherford is an in-house consultant at UMD who helps instructors fashion new ways of teaching, and helps them measure the effectiveness of their teaching. She says the end-of-semester survey can be a good gauge of student satisfaction, but an instructor also needs feedback during the semester.
Rutherford offers to help instructors get "feedback" from students. She has folders full of examples of evaluation techniques; she'll come to a classroom with a video camera, or set up a focus group of students. But Rutherford's services are optional. The only evaluation that's required is the multiple choice, end-of-semester survey whose results are confidential.
UMD's Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, Vince Magnuson says beyond that mandatory survey, it's up to instructors to choose how to measure their own effectiveness. Beginning next semester those options include the student-run survey. Magnuson stops short of urging instructors to take part. He says the student-run survey could be "useful" if the students do a good job.
The instructors' union is neither supporting nor opposing the the student-run evaluation. Union officers say it's up to each instructor to decide whether to take part. Student organizers say, so far, about a dozen instructors have agreed to let their students fill out the survey at the end of spring semester.