Degree In Sight

Students might wonder whether anyone reads all the evaluation forms they fill out, but department heads and students at several programs say student evaluations do matter, in everything from tenure decisions to pay raises.

"You are not powerless, you have a lot of say," says Gerald Davison, PhD, a psychology professor and department chair at the University of Southern California (USC).

Davison, who has taught at USC since 1979, also serves as chair of the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology.

In reviewing the evaluations of faculty in his program, Davison says one of the first things he examines is how many students filled out a course evaluation compared with how many students were registered for the class. In his experience, students who show up for the last session of a course are more likely to feel they benefited from the course, he says.

During his own courses when a student came to him and complained, he always took into account whether that student had fulfilled the basics of what he or she was expected to do in a course, such as showing up for all the classes, and being diligent.

At the same time, he also considers the big picture: Students' opinions of what a course was like can change over time, as they gain more experience with the process. He bases that approach on an experience from his own time as an undergraduate, when he took a course surveying the history of Western civilization. He hated the course at the time, given the breadth of material it presented, and says he would have given his professor a "mediocre" rating at the time.

His opinion changed later, however, because the course built a framework for what he learned in subsequent classes.

"By my senior year, I realized how worthwhile it had been for me," he says.

If a professor gets negative ratings and comments, it might require that Davison and the professor meet to figure out what's going on, he says.

But he also notices when a professor is getting particularly good student feedback, and four or five times each semester, Davison writes a note of praise to a faculty member who's earned excellent evaluations.

Moreover, professors' course evaluations factor into how much of a pay increase they receive as part of the university's merit pay system, Davison says.

For their part, students should evaluate a course with a conscientious spirit, because how they rate a course, and the comments they make, have weight within a department, Davison notes.

"You have a responsibility, and you should take it seriously." he says.

At West Virginia University, course evaluations are a factor in pay increases and tenure decisions, says Sarah Stevens, a fourth-year student pursuing a doctorate in clinical child psychology.

Last year, Stevens served as a student representative on a faculty committee that evaluated each instructor's performance for the previous year. Using information on their research, teaching and service activities, evaluations from practica students and course evaluations, the committee developed a rating for each faculty member. That rating was then used by the university's administration to decide pay increases and tenure decisions, she says.

"Those end of the year evaluations were very important to the process," she says.

Programs also make adjustments to courses based on student feedback. For example, when students in Stevens' program expressed dissatisfaction a few years ago with the content of a professional development course, faculty redesigned the course to include more information on research grants available to students.

-C. Munsey