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When is the best time for professors to send out course evaluations?

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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.

As the end of the semester approaches, students will be asked to fill out course evaluations, but the academic community is questioning whether or not students should be filling them out before finals. 

Raghuveer Parthasarathy, a physics professor at the University of Oregon, runs a blog which features posts on various academic discussions. One such post discussed delayed course evaluations and the value they may hold for students and professors alike.

In an interview, Parthasarathy said some of the most worthwhile input he has received from students comes months, even years, after they have taken his courses. In these conversations, students have frequently told Parthasarathy how his course material impacted their future studies or how it influenced aspects of their life post-graduation.

“It really tells you there is some value in your teaching, and it can tell you what aspects of the course really made an impact or were relevant,” he said.

Douglas MacLean, a UNC philosophy professor, said a few weeks difference in submitting evaluations likely would not make a difference, but he thinks hindsight from a year or later could yield helpful information.

“My question is, 10 years from now, will anything we’ve been talking about now have made an impact?”  MacLean said. “Perhaps we keep the system the way it is now, but we invite students to go back and re-evaluate the course a year or so later.”

Students have also commented on the idea of delayed evaluations, but seem to think this process would be infeasible or unhelpful in different ways than the current system.

“In my opinion, it would be best to fill out an evaluation immediately after you finish a course just so that everything you liked and didn’t like is still fresh in your mind,” said Carson Grill, a junior business administration major at UNC. 

Greg Nuckols, an exercise and sport science graduate student and teaching assistant at UNC, said it has sometimes taken years to see the true value of a course, but that’s typically not a feasible time frame for universities to collect data.

“I didn’t go back to school until three years after completing my undergraduate studies, and there were many instances where I didn’t realize the utility of what I was learning in a course until many years after I took it,” Nuckols said. “I think giving a second evaluation a few months after completing a course is an interesting idea – more data at least – but I’m not sure how much answers will change in that span of time.”

Beyond timing, Parthasarathy said certain aspects of the current evaluation system can provide unhelpful information to professors. He said the greatest input he receives from evaluations comes from short-answer written responses. 

MacLean said feedback such as, “This class was boring,” or, “I liked this course,” gives virtually no input to professors. 

“Both kinds of comments — positive and negative — can be helpful. Any thoughtful input beyond a thumbs up or thumbs down can give us real insight,” MacLean said.

The two professors expressed concerns that students might not always be evaluating professors in the way professors envision. Parthasarathy said he was worried students sometimes evaluate positively due to a class’ ease or a professor's personality as opposed to giving a positive evaluation due to effective teaching techniques or applicable, interesting material.

“Even if you’re not going into a career in that topic, consider if (the course) changed the way you think about things,” Parthasarathy said.

To Nuckols, course evaluations are not just about liking or disliking a class or professor, but they are a way for students to give feedback which could alter future offerings of the class.

“I don’t put too much thought into whether or not I liked the course, but I put more thought into giving concrete feedback which I think could improve the course for future students,” Nuckols said.

Course evaluations were created with the idea that courses and professors should always be improving semester to semester due to the feedback given by students. 

“If we could have more valuable information from evaluations and a greater amount of it, students could make better educated decisions on what courses to take in the future,” Parthasarathy said. “Professors could know what exactly can help their students.”


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