The college implemented a new standardized course evaluation system for the past fall semester. The evaluation system, which was approved in a faculty-wide vote last May, aims to more fairly assess tenure-track faculty members and to receive teaching assessments from students without implicit biases. The initiative comes in part through recommendations based off data collection from the Center for Teaching and Learning’s (CTL) over the last few semesters.
Though course evaluation systems existed among departments prior to the standardized system, questions differed greatly between individual classes and professors. Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein noted that pre-tenure faculty could not be fairly assessed because of the lack of uniformity in course evaluations.
“Since the Committee of Six evaluates all pre-tenure colleagues across the college, it seems appropriate that the same form should be used by all,” Epstein wrote in an email interview with The Student. The Committee of Six, the executive committee of the faculty responsible for issues including tenure and promotion, reviews the evaluations in consultation with senior departmental faculty when considering faculty for tenure.
Epstein added that “[the college has] heard for some years that pre-tenure faculty … desired a college-wide teaching evaluation form,” echoing reports from a 2018 accreditation review of the college by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) which found that “untenured faculty have requested a more standardized approach to teaching evaluations.”
In a statement to The Student, Director of the CTL Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe and Associate Director for the CTL Sarah Bunnell said that along with creating a standardized course evaluation form, an ad hoc committee formed by the provost’s office was also tasked with designing questions that considered issues of implicit bias.
The value of course evaluations as a tool to advance teaching is a debated topic in the academic world, Caldwell-O’Keefe and Bunnell added. The American Sociological Association (ASA) declared course evaluations “problematic” and affected by implicit bias in a statement last fall — especially evaluations of female professors in male-dominated areas of study.
In an investigation published by The Student last winter, Editor-in-Chief Emerita Shawna Chen ’20 reported that women faculty of color face more challenges receiving tenure.
The ASA described the challenges of implicit biases: “Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) … are weakly related to other measures of teaching effectiveness and student learning … and they can be influenced by course characteristics like time of day, subject, class size and whether the course is required, all of which are unrelated to teaching effectiveness,” the association wrote.
SETs should instead be used as a part of a holistic process when evaluating teaching, the statement continues. SETs are better used to assess instructors by evaluating “patterns in an instructor’s feedback over time,” the ASA statement argues.
The statement also described how students use stereotypical gendered language when describing faculty and unfairly rate female instructors when evaluating women.
“But students provide the most consistent glimpse we have into the learning environment, and if we ask the right questions that students can reliably answer, it can provide helpful insight about the learning environment,” Caldwell-O’Keefe and Bunnell said.
“Getting good course feedback depends on asking the right questions,” they added.
Some students on campus felt lukewarm about the course evaluations. Lucy Carlson ’22 said she completed all the course evaluations for her classes last semester as candidly as possible. Still, she felt as though the questions could have been better tailored for each class to give better feedback.
“I feel like the things I would have wanted to say about the class, anonymously, wouldn’t have been good responses to the questions asked,” she said. “I ended up filling out the ‘other’ section to give my thoughts,” she said.
Caldwell-O’Keefe and Bunnell also noted that the questions should aim to provoke responses on how the faculty member is promoting engagement and learning in the classroom. The phrasing and specific wording of the questions were discussed in depth while the evaluation program was created, according to Caldwell-O’Keefe and Bunnell. While the course evaluations are the same for all departments and professors, one question at the end of the evaluation may be customized by the faculty members for their specific class.
“[We are] continually impressed by the thoughtfulness of faculty,” Caldwell-O’Keefe and Bunnell said regarding the faculty’s support of these changes. “[We] appreciate the ways that this environment enables many perspectives to be on the table and considered in order to come to a decision,” they said.