Universities grappling with online evaluations

Universities who have switched to online evaluations are concerned about plummeting participation rates

Dalhousie University offers support for teachers trying to encourage students to fill out the evaluations. (Photo: Courtney Zwicker)

Did you take a class last semester that could use some fine-tuning? Or how about one so engaging you didn’t want it to end?

Did you let the professor know?

Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College have both noticed a significant decline in participation in course evaluations since the two schools switched to an online form in 2012.

In the fall of 2012, 55 to 60 per cent of Dalhousie students submitted a course evaluation and that number dropped to between 45 to 50 per cent in fall 2013.

Course evaluations, or Student Ratings of Instruction, are a way for students to submit honest feedback about their courses anonymously. They are asked to answer a variety of questions about the quality of teaching, course layout and material.

Dalhousie emails instructions to students, which means they can fill out the online form when it’s convenient.

“This freedom means that students aren’t taking these as seriously as they might ought want to,” says Kim Kierans, vice-president of the University of King’s College.

The evaluations are used by instructors to review which teaching methods are working, and which aren’t. Administrators use the results in considerations for tenure and since receiving such low participation from the first semester the online evaluations were used, Kierans explains King’s and Dalhousie have stopped using the data to make decisions on instructors’ positions because the results are not “statistically sound”.

Kierans, who teaches in the journalism school, says she has not seen the results yet from the fall semester, but the school had an average participation rate of 39 per cent for seven journalism electives it offered over the summer.

“I can remember when we would get 90 percent responses on paper,” she says.

Deborah Kiceniuk is the associate director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching at Dalhousie. She says there are resources such as videos and slideshows which instructors can use to educate students about the importance of the evaluations.

“If students understand what the evaluations are used for, they’re more likely to complete them,” she says.

Universities who have stuck by the old-fashioned paper method have experienced steady participation results.

Mount Saint Vincent University dean Kim Kienapple stands by the school’s decision to stay with the paper forms.

“The research we looked at suggested there would be a drop off, and we thought, given the importance, we didn’t want to go there. We wanted to keep the response rates up,” he says

Last year their participation rates ranged between 68 and 81 per cent, and the year before, they had results of 72 to 75 per cent.

He says the key to high response rates is making sure the students know how important the evaluations are.

“Their purpose is to improve the quality of instruction on campus. If we can convey that these items have real relevance, then people will likely take the time to respond to them,” he says.

Barb Bell, vice-president of academics at Saint Mary’s University, says course evaluations for their online courses have a significantly lower response than their on-campus courses, which are collected on paper.

For the past five years, participation rates for online course evaluations have consistently been less than 40 per cent. Rates for in-course paper evaluations are usually between 62 and 65 per cent, Bell reported in an email.

She credits the low online response rates to students being busy at the end of the semester and failing to “perceive a direct benefit” from completing them.

“Our current experience and data support the conclusion that, in the absence of providing incentives, students in a classroom that are provided with a paper evaluation form are more likely to participate in the instructor course evaluation process,” says Bell.

Dalhousie initially decided to go online with its evaluations to cut costs on the 60,000 paper forms they were printing off each semester.

“I find I get the most out of the constructive criticism from the students,” Kierans says.

Losing that “would be the biggest loss of all.” .

“There’s no going back as far as Dalhousie is concerned. It will be up to the individual departments if they want to go back to paper, which they (don’t seem to) have the appetite for,” she says.