Digital teacher evaluations limit crucial feedback

Photo courtesy of UConn

In the spring of 2013, amid piles of wasted paper student evaluations of teachers (SET), the University of Connecticut converted to a digital format for teacher evaluations.

While it is a more economical and environmentally conscious format, the transition to digital has rendered students significantly less compelled to complete the evaluations. This limits crucial feedback for professors and teaching assistants, as evaluations are only effective with five or more responses.  

This is problematic because professors rely on these responses as a measure of their efficacy as educators. Due to the optional format, responses are most often from dissatisfied or very pleased, and thus motivated, students.  This means educators often do not receive feedback from a representative sample of students.

In a higher academic climate wherein the paucity of tenure is very real, tenure-track educators are in desperate need of representative evaluations. Adjunct professors also rely on these evaluations to preserve their jobs in an intensely competitive environment.

Tangible measures can be taken to gain more SET responses, though. Many teachers take class time to allow students to work on the SETs.  While this does not guarantee completion, as many students eschew this set-aside time in favor of digital distractions, this method has proven somewhat effective.

This is where paper SETs had a clear advantage. While professors could ensure that students had written responses on physical SETs, they exert little control over students straying and choosing to use designated time for other activities.

Additionally, while some already do this, professors could incentivize students for completing their SETs. For instance, offering additional points or revealing a few questions on the final exam if the total class response rate reaches a certain threshold.

Students are continually seeking better grades, especially toward the end of the semester. If completing a short, easy survey affords students a point increase for their final grade, then they will be more compelled to complete SETs.

UConn could make SETs mandatory for all classes. So long as the university maintains anonymity in the actual SETs, it would be reasonable for administrators to mandate responses. While that sounds harsh, given the importance of SETs for professors, teaching assistants and adjunct professors, the university must find a way to improve poor response rates.

SETs are necessary for all educators at UConn, potentially encouraging or stalling promotion and tenure. Until the university finds a better method to administer these evaluations, students should complete them to the best of their ability.