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Faculty depends on student evaluations to improve

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Alec White, a first-year at the time, fills out a course evaluation for the Fall 2017 semester. The Committee on Community and Diversity discussed the impact of COVID-19 on faculty teaching evaluations and the upcoming faculty nomination process over Zoom on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

With finals around the corner, students in Chapel Hill are taking study breaks by agreeing or disagreeing if “the course challenged (them) to think deeply about the subject matter," and selecting an empty bubble. 

While students stress about semester examinations, instructors have begun to fret over their course evaluations, which are finalized on Wednesday night, Dec. 6. 

Since mid-November, students have received emails requesting completion of course evaluations. The form can only be accessed with an ONYEN, however all responses are anonymous. Although student participation is not required, the UNC System Board of Governors policy mandates student feedback be a part of faculty assessments. 

Evaluations are administered through colleges within the university, as well as through Business, Law and Medicine professional schools. It is within the discretion of each dean to decide what questions will be added on to each survey and how teachers within the department will be evaluated. 

“I am measured against my department,” said English teaching assistant professor Courtney Rivard. “You get a data visualization and you can see how you compare with fellow faculty.”

The Office of Institutional Research and Assessment compiles and distributes the results to course instructors. The report Rivard ordinarily sees includes a summary, breakdowns of responses to each quantitative question, and all written answers to open-ended questions. OIRA also provides links and contacts to instructors looking to better understand survey results and strategize improvements. 

Although some teachers rely solely on the end of semester evaluations, others request that students evaluate themselves and class multiple times throughout the course. Peter Diao, a math lecturer, asks students to evaluate him throughout the semester.  First-year Caroline Sargent appreciated this.

“He cared about us in the way that he always had office hours," Sargent said. "He had study sessions before tests, and he started every class by checking in with us.”

Sargent’s belief that a teacher’s passion and effort toward their students result in positive evaluations aligns with many other students, even those who gave negative reviews.

“It was such a pain to go to class because (my instructor) obviously didn’t care about the subject,” first-year Alec White said. “I wrote a short response in the comment section and it was my only poor evaluation out of the five that I completed.”

UNC System’s policy manual described the evaluations as a chance for courses and teachers to improve. Over the past few years, the course evaluation forms have been adjusted to allow for department-specific additions, such as qualitative sections and the ability to add an instructor’s own questions. 

Rivard said she relies heavily on the feedback given in her personalized section, particularly when she has taken teaching risks or incorporated new aspects into her course. 

“It causes time for reflection and critical evaluation, and it can be slightly uncomfortable —
doesn’t mean it’s not productive,” Rivard said. “I’ve taught for long enough that it’s worth taking risks, and evaluations help make them even better.”

Instructors will receive their course evaluation results in the weeks following the semester’s end and will have time to process reviews before next semester’s start on Jan. 10.

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