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Focus groups examine course evaluations

A faculty committee aimed at reforming Stanford’s course evaluation system held six focus groups with undergraduate students from Jan. 29 to Feb. 5 in an effort to solicit student feedback on a process that, according to committee chair Russell Berman, “leaves much to be desired.”

Berman said that the impetus for the committee, which was created in fall quarter in response to the suggestions of the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), came from “widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.”

“The faculty don’t believe that it gives them sufficient information about the success of their courses, and students indicate, as well, a kind of unhappiness with the form,” he said.

In order to pinpoint the failures in the current system, members of the committee led 14-student focus groups that discussed the evaluation system’s strengths and weaknesses for 90 minutes.

Committee member and professor of political science Jon Krosnick, whose academic work has focused on survey methodology and questionnaire design, noted the difficulty of moderating the discussion considering students’ lack of experience in designing such surveys.

“It might be tempting to ask the people who fill out a questionnaire how would they like for it to be designed, but if they don’t know…how to design a questionnaire well, then they’re operating at a bit of a disadvantage,” he said. “It’s like saying, you know, you’d like your open-heart surgery to be done successfully, but you have no idea how to do it successfully.”

Still, Krosnick said he noticed several factors that could help explain why students don’t put thought into their responses or, in many cases, don’t fill out their evaluations at all. The problem, he said, is twofold: the survey is poorly designed, and students are unaware of its importance.

Berman agreed that the evaluation, as it is now, isn’t asking the right questions.

“In addition to there being way too many and probably redundant questions, my sense is that the current form is focused too much on an evaluation of the teacher, rather than an evaluation of the learning environment,” he said. “The form really doesn’t ask the student much about how he or she has learned, whether he or she has taken on responsibility to make it a productive learning experience.”

Currently the administration uses the course evaluation results for several purposes, including tenure considerations, salary raises, promotions and awards. All of these purposes are listed at the top of the evaluation, but Krosnick said that many students find it unnecessary to read the fine print.

“It’s been in front of people all along, but people don’t often read instructions at the top of a questionnaire when they feel that they can just get started answering the questions,” he said.

Krosnick added that if students were made more aware of the evaluation’s importance, they might be more attentive and engaged when filling it out.

“Students don’t understand, necessarily, this very significant impact that their evaluations have,” he said. “Once they realize that, as we found in these groups, people thought, ‘Oh, gee, well maybe I really should be filling these things out.’”

Berman said that the committee hopes to agree on prospective changes soon so that it can begin field testing new versions in the spring and finalize its recommendations over the summer. He said his end goal is to create a new, effective evaluation system, one that is beneficial not just to professors, but to students as well.

“We really want to turn this around and see this as a way to give faculty better input as to how their course is succeeding and how it might succeed better,” he said. “We also want to see filling out the form as a learning moment for the student, inviting students to think about how the quarter has gone for them and what they’ve put into it.