Degree In Sight

Psychology graduate students face evaluation from their professors and supervisors in almost every aspect of their education and training.

But when it comes time to evaluate their professors on how well they teach, a bit of nervousness, and even fear, sometimes creeps into deciding what to say--and what not to say.

Recent graduate Serenity Chambers, PhD, says she sometimes felt nervous while completing evaluation forms for her counseling psychology program at Colorado State University. Several years ago, she wanted to give some constructive but negative feedback to a professor in her program.

Though she wanted to give an honest opinion of the professor's teaching, she had some reservations about how the information would be received and whether it would be used against her in future evaluations of her work. Given that the same professors often grade students' coursework, evaluate their research and supervise their performance in practica, psychology graduate students say keeping on faculty's good side is a common concern.

"The concern is always, 'I hope the professor doesn't recognize my handwriting,'" Chambers says.

Despite that trepidation on the part of some students, psychology department chairs say evaluation is a key part of helping professors improve their teaching performance. Moreover, a well-organized evaluation process can protect student anonymity and help them learn how to assess an instructor's performance in a productive way.


CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM

The evaluation process itself is valuable to a student's education because learning how to give constructive feedback is a skill vital to many branches of psychology, says Michael Horowitz, PhD, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Students who point out specific problems, and suggest ways to improve the delivery of material, are of the most help to instructors, Horowitz says.

"If they get a pile of forms that say 'great class' then they haven't learned anything. What can be done next time differently?" Horowitz says. At his school, students learn how to give that kind of feedback in a professional development seminar that covers how to give and receive feedback across all aspects of training. They learn that constructive criticism is characterized by:

  • Specificity. Give a detailed description of why a certain aspect of a course, or an instructor's delivery of material, did not work, and try to suggest what could be done differently.

  • Balance. Point out some areas of a class that went well.

Despite the existence of an evaluation process at nearly every psychology program, many students say they're nervous about being too honest on course evaluation forms because they fear repercussions from professors if a negative comment is linked to them.

One student, pursuing a PsyD in clinical psychology in Pennsylvania, didn't want to be identified out of concern for how faculty would react. At the program, professors also help evaluate students several times a year, and the results determine whether students stay with the program.

"You really feel that...you have to watch your back, because you feel like it's going to come back to you on your evaluation," the student says.

Plus, the student says, there's little incentive to be honest in the face of the perceived risk: Students feel that the program does not take action when they provide negative evaluations about the teaching performance of instructors.

"There is a process, I just don't see that it's actually meaningful," the student says.


ANONYMITY

Making students feel safe about giving negative feedback is something many programs try to ensure,says Nadya Fouad, PhD, past-chair of the Council of Counseling Psychology Training Programs. Fouad, a psychology professor in the educational psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says it's important for programs to give students several routes to convey concerns about the quality of a course or an instructor's performance.

At her program, students can use evaluation forms, comment drop-boxes or one-on-one meetings with department leadership to bring about concerns about instruction.

"There should be someone else they can go to if they feel they can't go to that person directly, and formal mechanisms to protect them," Fouad says.

To counter student fears of repercussions, psy-chology faculty at academic programs and professional schools say features of a well-designed evaluation process include:

  • Anonymity. Many programs use evaluation forms that don't require a student to sign his or her name, and the evaluation forms are handed out and collected by a student, not the instructor. Handwritten responses are transcribed on a separate sheet, so that the student's handwriting won't indicate who made the comments.

  • Timing. Administrators say it's best to collect evaluations on the last day of a course and share the results with the instructor after he or she has posted students' grades.

Some programs are experimenting with new approaches to student feedback about courses.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the psychology training program held a "town meeting" for students and faculty when the program was up for accreditation review in 2006, Fouad says.

And based on student comments in the past few years that several courses repeated the same material about counseling in a multicultural context, the faculty reorganized the material last year, she says.

At the Adler School of Professional Psychology, administrators are planning to bring together small student focus groups to evaluate courses, says Frank Gruba-McCallister, PhD, vice president of academic affairs.

"We want to ask, 'What is it that's happening in a classroom that's facilitating your learning, and what's not? What can we be doing better?'" Gruba-McCallister says.


MID-COURSE CORRECTIONS

Several professors interviewed say it's not enough to look for evaluations as a course concludes, but that surveying students midway through can help an instructor make any necessary adjustments for a successful course.

Heather E. Sterling-Turner, PhD, does that whenever she teaches a new course to graduate students at the University of Southern Mississippi.

An associate psychology professor and training director for the school psychology program, Sterling-Turner teaches several courses on the analysis of behavior.

About halfway through a course, she e-mails a survey to students, asking them to rate their satisfaction with the assigned reading, her lectures, the pace of her instruction and opportunities for questions in class. There's also a space for overall comments on any other aspect of the course.

Her students can fill out the form anonymously, print it out and put it in her mailbox.

Based on the feedback, Sterling-Turner has made changes from comments on the student evaluations.

"I've cut back on some readings when it's been too many," she says. "I've changed some lecture components to give more examples."

"If they get a pile of forms that say 'great class,' then they haven't learned anything. What can be done next time differently?"

Michael Horowitz
Chicago School of Professional Psychology