The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union is examining the possibility of making course evaluations public.
The idea is being put forward by Vice-President of Academic Affairs Jordan Sherbino, who used it as part of his campaign platform during the USSU election this spring.
Currently, the U of S has a standardized course evaluation tool called Student Evaluation of Educational Quality. However, only about 25 per cent of the university’s courses use SEEQ. Individual departments have the option to create their own evaluations.
Sherbino hopes to create a system of standardized course evaluations that would be accepted and used by the entire university. Individual departments and faculty would be encouraged to customize this evaluation to better fit the needs of their courses.
After the data is collected, the results of the course evaluations would be made available to students who are registering for classes.
“We’re hoping to distribute this information to students so they can make better course selections and get the best learning outcomes for their tuition money,” said Sherbino.
Ideally, evaluation results would be made public through PAWS for students during registration.
Sherbino noted that students currently have access to similar information through services like Rate My Prof, but feels that these websites have certain shortcomings.
“It’s not a scientific way of doing it and it’s not the best way of getting this information,” Sherbino said. “It’s just not accurate and, largely, you won’t see the best sample space like you do in the course evaluations.”
While researching how to create the program, Sherbino looked at other Canadian universities and found that the U of S lags far behind its U15 peers in the area of course evaluations. Public evaluation programs are in place at McGill University, McMaster University, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, among others.
The UBC program, which also operates on a voluntary basis, has a 64 per cent participation rate among the school’s academic faculty.
Implementing public evaluation programs has not been without controversy. In 2007, the UBC faculty union took legal action against the university’s students’ union because they felt the program violated their collective bargaining agreement.
The lawsuit was settled in 2010 when the Court of Appeal for B.C. ruled in favour of the students’ union and stated that the faculty union did not have jurisdiction over course evaluations. However, this did result in the program becoming voluntary rather than mandatory.
Sherbino said that lessons can be learned from the UBC situation and that he plans to take a non-confrontational approach to implementing such a program at the U of S.
“Hopefully we can create a culture where it’s seen as a positive thing and where professors are encouraged to participate,” Sherbino said.
So far, Sherbino has received very little feedback from the faculty, but says that the responses he has gotten have been largely positive.
“Lots of professors are seeing the merit in being able to choose questions and not having the standardized 40 plus question that the SEEQ has,” Sherbino said.
Martin Gaal, a sectional lecturer for the Department of Political Studies, is supportive of the initiative. However, Gaal also acknowledges that there would have to be limitations to the program.
“For students this is about their four years of education and what they’re going to do in the future,” Gaal said. “For professors this is their livelihood, so there has to be some kind of protection.”
Gaal also said that public course evaluations could have an unfair, negative effect on new professors who are still in the process of learning how to teach. Furthermore, Gaal said that he feels professors could start catering to students’ demands in order to get higher ratings.
“I think you have to strike a balance between transparency and protecting the careers of those who are learning a trade or skillset.”
Peter Hynes, an associate professor in the Department of English, sees course evaluation as a tool that should primarily serve university faculty.
Evaluations “are designed so professors can get feedback on things they need to improve,” Hynes said. “And the other major institutional purpose is so they can be used for tenure and promotion cases, so it’s quite important from a professor’s point of view that they’re accurate.”
Hynes said he wouldn’t be opposed to participating in a voluntary course evaluation program, but that the participation of his colleagues in the program would also be a determining factor.
Both Gaal and Hynes predicted that university faculty would be split on the issue. Sherbino also acknowledged that there would be obstacles to implementing a public course evaluations program.
“I know this is going to be a long project to undertake; it’s something that will have to go beyond my one-year term here,” Sherbino said. “But it’s getting the groundwork set up, it’s doing the research and starting the conversation.”
Graphic: Stephanie Mah