Dec 062004
Authors: By Kyle EndresBy Kyle Endres

Lisa Mason wonders how much input she has over what she learns in her classes.

She fills out the bubbles and writes down comments on the Student Course Surveys every semester and wonders if professors use the information to improve their courses.

"It's a good chance, if you've had a hard teacher, to let someone know. I wonder if they really take into consideration what the comments (are)," said Mason, a sophomore theatre major. "I guess I haven't seen any improvements."

This semester she had to retake a class because of a problem with a professor, so she feels more than written feedback might be necessary in some cases.

"I'm actually going to talk to the head of the department and say some things need to change," she said.

The course surveys students fill out at the end of each course can help professors improve their courses from semester to semester, as well as be used for evaluations when they go up for tenure, pay raises and other performance-related perks.

However, the latter is only true for professors who choose to use the survey results when they go up for evaluation.

"The Student Course Surveys can be used by a faculty member to demonstrate their skill at teaching as part of their evaluation process," said Tom Maher, director of the Office of Instructional Services, the office that distributes and collects the surveys each semester. Instructional services processes 175,000 surveys a year, he said.

The surveys ask students to evaluate a course's goals and fulfillment of those goals, the quality of the course's facilities and technology, and the professor's enthusiasm for and knowledge of the material, among other topics. They also offer students the opportunity to give written comments about the course.

When faculty members go up for evaluation, they are required to offer evidence of their teaching ability as part of a dossiers submitted to the department in which they teach, said Kevin Oltjenbruns, vice provost for undergraduate studies. She said a high percentage of professors – in her experience at different levels at the university – use the student course surveys as that evidence.

"They are to provide evidence of teaching and advising quality, and even though it's not a requirement that they submit that particular data set, they must provide some evidence," Oltjenbruns said.

Elizabeth Mogen, an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, said her department encourages faculty members to use the surveys in evaluation processes and to improve their teaching.

"I'll even take ideas from one class and use them for another class," she said. "It's a good way to communicate."

Oltjenbruns said officials at all university levels use the student course surveys – or whatever teaching evidence a faculty member submits in his or her dossiers – as a large part of the assessment.

"I've seen department review committees take it seriously. I have seen deans' offices take it seriously. I have seen the provost's office take it seriously," Oljtenbruns said. "The comments, I think, as they go up the line, are certainly focused on."

Michael Manfredo, chair and professor in the natural resources recreation and tourism department, said his faculty members review their surveys with him whenever they are up for either annual or tenure/promotion evaluations.

"The faculty are sort of responsible for saying what they've done in either of those cases," he said, adding that the process is voluntary. "It really helps the faculty members revise what they do."

Oltjenbruns also said it is important to note that the surveys are not faculty evaluations. They are solely surveys of a particular course.

Although some students do not take the surveys seriously or bypass the process altogether, Maher said there are three reasons students should appreciate the surveys' importance.

First off, he said, the survey results are used by other students when they choose courses during registration. Students can peruse the survey results by visiting the Associated Students of CSU's director of academics or through a link on ASCSU's Web site, although the link was not functioning as of Monday.

Maher said the second reason is that departments use the surveys for faculty performance assessment.

His third reason is that professors use the surveys, and in particular the written comments on the bottom of the sheet, to improve their teaching methods and styles to better fit students' needs.

"I look for what kind of repeating patterns I see written up," Mogen said. "Sometimes you'll get extreme statements one way or the other in a class, but I look for more when I see repeating patterns."

Sunny Bourdon, a freshman wildlife biology major, said she sees the surveys as a good chance to make a change in a course, but she does not usually utilize the written comments section unless there is a particular reason to.

"I take them somewhat seriously because if there's something that needs to be changed I think it's good to let them know that," Bourdon said. "I don't really go into detail too often unless there's something that's really good or bad about (the course)."

Maher said he also uses the survey halfway through the semester to improve his teaching as a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication. He said professors have the option of getting mid-semester feedback through the survey, or something similar, so that improvements they make will actually affect the students who fill out the survey.

He said faculty members usually collect the data from the midterm surveys on their own, but the instructional services office will run the numbers for them, especially in the case of large lecture classes.

For the end-of-semester surveys, instructional services gives the forms to the departments, which then distribute them to professors. Faculty members then have the surveys returned to the office after students fill them out.

After this, the surveys are delivered to Academic Computing and Networking Services to compile the data from the filled-out bubbles on the sheets. The surveys then go back to instructional services to be delivered to faculty members for review of the written comments.

But Lisa Mason still wonders if the surveys really help enhance her courses.

"The comments that you write down, does it really make a difference if I fill out a survey or not?" she said. "I think they're very important though."

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