After A Two-Year Suspension, Course Evaluations Are Back With Students Doubting Their Ability To Affect Change And Professors Questioning Their Underlying Bias
At the beginning of 2019, Concordia’s Student Union (CSU) conducted its annual undergraduate survey. In that survey, many students voiced their concerns regarding the evaluation system at Concordia and believed that course evaluations did little to improve the teaching or the syllabi.
“Students who are filling out surveys could not benefit from professors’ adjustments and
thus many wouldn’t care to take time to do the surveys,” the survey concluded, which is why 84% of students wanted their professors to implement mid-term evaluations.
Others believed that professors did not care enough about their evaluations and were not willing to engage with their feedback. Some students doubted whether their feedback would lead anywhere with regards to tenured professors.
“I think the problem is that professors are not held remotely accountable for being bad professors. Those with tenure have no reason to improve their teaching style because they don’t care enough,” mentioned a surveyed student.
A month after the 2019 annual survey was conducted, the pandemic was in full swing and Concordia’s courses had moved online. Following an agreement between the faculty unions and the University, course evaluations were suspended. “In part, this was done because course evaluations are designed for in-person courses and could not fairly account for the remote teaching context,” explained Vannina Maestracci, Concordia’s University Spokesperson.
While the students surveyed in 2019 had shown a strong preference for more course evaluations, they would not return until the summer of 2022.
Elisabeth Peltier, associate professor at John Molson School of Business and treasurer at Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA) explained that “[Professors] had to learn how to work with technology and felt that having evaluations would not be fair because they weren’t doing their normal jobs.” However, CUFA was not involved in the prolonged suspension of course evaluations even after in-person courses resumed in the middle of the 2022 spring semester.
According to Maestracci, in 2021, a working group which included CSU and Graduate Student Association (GSA) representation, was set up to look at mechanisms for student feedback and issue recommendations on course evaluations at Concordia. However, there seems to be no concrete timeline to address the student issues that were put on hold due to the pandemic.
The key request from students was to have mid-term evaluations that allowed students to give feedback before the course was over, in the hope that some of the feedback would be implemented before the course’s end. The Concordian spoke with Eric Friedman, a student taking courses in the philosophy department at Concordia who has also echoed this sentiment.
“A discussion in the middle of the semester that addresses students’ concerns about the course and is done in class and as a discussion would be very helpful,” said Friedman.
However, as it currently stands, mid-course evaluations at Concordia are done at the discretion of the professor and are not mandatory, with many professors opting out of them.
“During the pandemic all the efforts at the CSU was focused on advocacy around COVID,” said Asli Isaaq, academic and advocacy coordinator at the CSU. The focus on COVID-related issues has put many other student concerns on the back-burner, with annual student surveys also suspended for the last three CSU mandates.
Some faculty members might be hesitant to support the expansion of course evaluations. Some professors are skeptical of the underlying bias that students might have, and how that bias would affect the instructors’ performance evaluations. “We don’t trust teaching evaluations because there is so much research that shows that they are biased,” added Peltier.
Recent research suggests that factors such as gender, accent, and appearance can play a role in how students evaluate their instructors. “The fact that the participation level is so low also makes evaluations not representative of an instructor’s performance,” explains Peltier.
Some students are also skeptical about course evaluations. Many were concerned that their feedback would not make a change if their professors were tenured and therefore they did not bother with course evaluations. “For tenured professors, research constitutes most of their responsibility and so course evaluations would not have much of an effect,” added Peltier.
Many students who are disappointed with the prospect of affecting change via course evaluations rely on websites such as Rate My Professors to avoid professors with bad reviews. However, external websites are not regulated and many of the reviews can be biased and untrustworthy.
Creating an internal evaluation and reviewing platform that allows students to share their class experiences and feedback could be an idea that addresses these concerns. Some students stated that being able to see other students’ evaluations would incentivize them to take part in more evaluations.
“I check my professors on Rate My Professors before I take a course and it helps me get a general idea of what people think overall,” says Asley, an undergraduate computer engineering student who did not want to disclose her last name. According to Asley, seeing other students’ comments is valuable and it can help incentivize participation.
However, Isaaq believes that such a platform should have been planned for the beginning of the CSU’s mandate and logistically it would not be possible to implement it at this time.
“I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea, but those are the types of things you plan at the beginning of your mandate,” said Isaaq. “My year is set and there’s only so many things you can do and decide on, but an idea like having your own platform to post your ratings […] takes a lot of labour and we already decided what our goals are for this year.”
Isaaq believes that there are benefits to an internal platform since Rate My Professors does not include all of the part-time professors and has no index to show who is currently teaching or no longer teaching at Concordia. However, Fawaz Halloum, the CSU General Coordinator, said that the issue of having mid-course evaluations will be “shared with the academic caucus who may decide to take it up with the Senate.”
The University maintains that course evaluations are taken seriously and that department chairs have access to them and can discuss any issues that arise from them with the respective faculty.
There has been a lack of action since the survey came out in 2019 since there are still no mid-course evaluations for most courses. Maestracci affirmed that “the recommendations are under review and we will be sharing more on their implementation once that is done.” However, she did not share any specific timeline as to when students can expect this implementation.