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Putting a Critical Eye to Student Evaluation Effectiveness

By Haydn Elmore | May 1, 2023

The University at Albany student body is now able to fill out course evaluations, but members of the United University Professions (UUP) are concerned about their accuracy and impact. Students are not required to fill them out, and, according to these professors, the evaluations can damage teachers’ careers unfairly.

Simple Check Box Evaluation

Photo Credit: Above the Law

David Banks, is a professor at the University of Albany and a member of the UUP, which is the nation’s largest higher education union and represents the faculty and professional staff of the SUNY system. Banks is part of a union committee studying the impact of evaluations, said he thinks the evaluations are heavily flawed due to low student participation, which he said can skew results and its online format. All of which can heighten biases.

“It used to be that teachers would hand the evaluations on paper to the students and put them into a folder for one student to deliver when they’re all done,” Banks said. “But since we have moved them all online, we have seen a low percentage of students doing them.”

According to a Course Evaluation Responses Rates Report from UAlbany, the evaluation rate has seen a decrease amongst different divisions within the last five years.

UAlbany has never seen a response rate of 50% from underclassmen students. The highest response rate they have seen is at 47% in the Fall 2018 semester, which has decreased to 39% in Fall 2022.

The highest response rate from upperclassmen was also 47% during Fall 2018, but it saw a decrease to 35% in Fall 2022.

The graduate division has reached a 65% response rate, followed by a decrease to a 54% response rate in the Fall of 2022.

The online format encourages more polarized reviews, according to Banks, citing studies conducted by the union. Either students love or hate a class and it can be unclear if a student is responding to a teacher’s personality or to the teacher’s methods in the classroom.

“Some responses come from students who really hate the class and often leave either racist or sexist comments toward the professor teaching the class,” Banks said. “Other responses come from students who love the class and leave positive responses based on the professor's charm and likable personality.”

One impact, Banks added, is that the reviews play a large part in teacher promotions.

UUP has seen multiple promotions cases being denied because of the influence of student evaluations in the promotion packages for teaching candidates. This occurs often with the promotion from lecture 1 to lecture 2 that the university conducts and being sent to UUP for closer inspection towards the end of each semester. Teachers are able to be promoted in this way after six years of teaching and evaluations.

Banks suggested some alternatives when it comes to student evaluation issues, like having them return to being paper-only – handing them out in class. Other options mentioned were getting rid of them altogether, or making it limited to peer evaluations between professors and faculty members to make the results more accurate, based further in how their teaching abilities should be evaluated.

However, some students think that student evaluations shouldn’t be changed, regardless if the students take them or not.

Godson Ezeolu, a sophomore, said that he fills out evaluations and thinks responses can help teachers improve, regardless of underlying factors like receiving hateful comments and not getting further promotions that could affect their abilities when students go and fill out the evaluation.

“The nature of evaluations can give good insight on how good a teacher is in teaching that class or not,” Ezelou said.

“I was never given an evaluation in any of my classes,” Brianna Aldrich, a junior, said. “But I believe the evaluations are important to see if the teachers follow through on what they are teaching to the students.”

UAlbany’s student evaluations are still available for students to fill out and submit until May 3.

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