It’s that time of year again. As fall semester classes wrap up, students will complete Course Evaluation Questionnaires (CEQs). Professors, likely in the final 15 or so minutes of the last class meeting, will exit the room to allow their students to anonymously fill out both a bubble sheet and a lined page for written answers detailing their experiences with and opinions of the course. Once all responses have been handed in, a student volunteer will deliver the envelope to the Registrar’s Office.
Although they occur every semester, myths and misunderstandings about CEQs persist. Given the importance of CEQs, it is crucial that these false beliefs be cleared up. Ultimately, completing course evaluations is akin to exercising our right to vote: Sharing honest, thorough opinions improves the faculty body through democratic means, and students would be remiss not to take the opportunity seriously.
The College relies on CEQs as one of the principle modes of evaluating the effectiveness of professors and obtaining student feedback. Once tabulated by the Office of the Registrar and handed over to the Dean of Faculty Office, the results of the numerical forms are distributed to their respective instructors and departments. As the numerical forms themselves state, “This Course Evaluation Questionnaire is an extremely important part of the faculty review, salary, tenure, and promotion process.” The narrative forms, on the other hand, play no part in employment or promotion decisions, as only professors see them. Nevertheless, they serve as a crucial vehicle for student feedback regarding their courses.
Given how much power CEQs hold over professors, particularly new and untenured faculty, students should fill out both forms fully and honestly, without fear of personal or academic repercussions for expressing their honest opinions. Registrar Colleen Mallet stated in an email interview, “Neither the narrative or the numerical results are shared with the instructor, department or Dean of Faculty prior to all grades being submitted.” Students should also note the falsity of the rumor that numerical forms with all ones or all fives are discarded—Mallet emphasized that all submitted forms are scanned and processed.
Granted, CEQs still present serious problems as an approach to faculty evaluation. Several studies have warned that gender and racial bias can significantly skew academic evaluations (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why We Must Stop Relying on Student Ratings of Teaching,” 04.25.2018). Furthermore, these responses do not always accurately measure teaching effectiveness, since students tend to favor instructors who give good grades (American Association of University Professors, “Student Evaluations of Teaching are Not Valid,” 05.22.2018). Correcting deeply ingrained biases is a challenging and ongoing process without an easy solution. However, professors must refrain from swaying the CEQ outcomes through any form of incentive. For their part, students should treat their comments seriously, because the CEQ reports can directly affect faculty under review for extension, reappointment, tenure or promotion, decisions which ultimately affect both faculty and students (Vassar College, “Faculty Handbook,” 2018).
The CEQ implementation process also needs improvement. Since students typically fill out forms at the end of class, they often feel the pressure to submit a hasty response. To remedy this issue, students may consider typing out a more thoughtful version beforehand. The administration could also design an alternative digital portal for students to complete the CEQ before accessing their final grades, allowing time for deeper reflections.
In addition, students should reach out to their professors and/or department heads about classes throughout the semester, whether during office hours or one-on-one meetings, so that their needs can be met in time, rather than after the fact.
While not as materially consequential as the numerical form, the CEQ narrative form should be taken just as seriously, as professors adjust their syllabi based on what students deemed successful. Thus, students can help improve the syllabi of their classes for future semesters by writing thoughtful feedback on various aspects of the course, including but not limited to the organization of assignments, readings and screenings.
Students can also comment on their professors’ availability during office hours and helpfulness in one-on-one meetings. Additionally, they can assess the difficulty of the class and address any issues they ran into during the course, such as trouble finding opportunities for participation or managing the workload. Since it can be easy to forget semester-length opinions on a course, giving thought to the narrative form in advance can help synthesize reflections and fully communicate them in the moment. If a student genuinely does not have any constructive criticism to give, they can use the space to thank the professor. If this course changed how you see something or impacted your interest in an area, tell them!
Ultimately, CEQs are a convenient way for students to submit evaluations of their professors and provide helpful suggestions and/or critiques. Professors, in turn, take the written responses into account to adapt the form of their courses to fit student needs. Particularly at Vassar, which prioritizes student input and discussion-based pedagogy, a course is an evolving and collaborative practice, not a static entity. Students should put thought into both their responses to the multiple-choice questions and their written evaluations. Although the CEQ may not be a perfect format, it is still a valuable one, provided students are willing to engage with it thoughtfully.
—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinions of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.