Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Incentives for Course Evaluations

In a timely note, a regular correspondent writes:

My college is on a big push to do course evals... we do them at midterm and the end of the course. So about every 7 weeks. Understandably students get burned out on all that evaluating and drag their feet about completing them, so we receive several "tips" a week about how to get students to do so, such as this (it's all cookie cutter stuff fromonlinecourseevaluations.com, no problem sharing them):

Getting Response Rates Tip 4:

Have you thought about offering incentives? Some faculty do not like reminding students because they feel like they are nagging their students. Group incentives are a great alternative. This allows the students to push their classmates to complete their evaluations. You may use something similar to the following:

'If this class gets an 80% response rate by the end of the evaluation, I will allow one 3x5 index card of notes to be used during your final.'

'If this class gets a 70% I will remove the lowest quiz grade.'

Also this from a youtube video were were encouraged to watch:

"I decided to tell students that if they filled out their course evaluations they would get a 1 to 2 bonus on their final score".

Is it just me or is all of that pretty unethical? I find the last part beyond the pale... to suggest we give points on the final grade for something that really has nothing to do with learning or coursework? What if that was the difference between failing and passing? That would mean we were handing out college credit for busy work, basically.

The real question is what should I do? My instinct is to just suck it up, ignore the bad advice and move on. On the other hand I feel like they need to be told this is not OK. They bought into this eval website and are just repeating their bad advice... maybe someone just needs to call them on it. Suggestions. from your wise and worldly readers?

It’s a fine line between rewarding participation and rewarding a positive response. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some students simply assume the latter.

I’ll share that I am not -- at all -- a fan of “extra credit.” It introduces too much noise into grading -- a noisy enough process already -- and often rewards the wrong things. “Collective” extra credit is that much worse, since it puts pressure on students to put pressure on other students. It goes well beyond the standard issues involved with “group work,” since it involves the entire class. (Of course, from my side of the desk, the most offensive extra credit is the kind that’s offered ad hoc to one or a few students and not to the rest. If some of the un-offered students are in protected classes, the legal issues are staggering.)

As with any kind of poll, the people most strongly motivated to give feedback are the ones with the most strongly held, and therefore usually the most extreme, opinions. In some ways, those can be the least valuable. Nearly any teacher worth her salt has had a student who thought the sun rose and set on her, and another who thought she smelled vaguely of sulfur. What I want to know is what the overall tendency is, and for what reasons.

I’ve never heard of midterm evaluations that were shared with administration. I’ve heard of professors doing their own midterm evaluations just to find out where the students were struggling, and then using that feedback to make adjustments. That seems reasonable to me, though I rarely did it myself. But the standard number-two-pencil evaluations that get tabulated? Not at midterm...

I wonder if the issue isn’t so much student attitudes per se, but rather a ridiculous situation that would naturally give rise to student cynicism. Even after all these years in administration -- in the words of the old Westerberg lyric, you can count the rings around my eyes -- I can’t imagine a productive administrative use of midterm evaluations. It seems like that would be the conversation to have. End of semester, I understand, as do most students. But midterm just seems like overkill. After a few years with multiple classes per term, I could easily imagine students getting a little tired of it. I would.

But maybe that’s me. Contexts differ, and some people out there have probably found ways to make this work (and/or to make it useful). Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Is there an effective, yet ethical, way to get students to indulge all those evals? Or is the entire enterprise misguided? Or, both?

Good luck. Sorry I don’t have the magic bullet on this one.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.