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Professors approach course questionnaires with caution

December 8, 2017

This week, students were urged to fill out Bowdoin Course Questionnaires (BCQs) to rate their experiences with courses and professors. Students’ responses are used to improve courses, evaluate faculty and supplement the process for making decisions on reappointment, promotion and tenure. Though professors across multiple departments often find student feedback helpful, they are sure to review the data cautiously.

BCQs allow students to rate their professors on a one-to-five scale as well as provide comments on communication from a professor, effectiveness of class time and overall instruction. While professors appreciate and implement feedback, they take ratings with a grain of salt.

“I try not to get too worked up about the outliers,” said Sarah Bay-Cheng, chair and professor of theater and dance. “I try to put those aside and look for trends. Is there something that came up for a third, half or most of the class?”

Professor of Government and Department Chair Michael Franz also focuses on trends in the comments.

“We read those responses and we look for patterns,” said Franz. “[We ask ourselves] if very few students report having met with a faculty member in that semester, why would that be the case?”

Some comments are considered more highly than others if deemed more sincere and specific.

“The more detailed they are the more we take them seriously because some students click the boxes and give ratings but don’t give any feedback,” said Franz.

Professors also acknowledge that responses can be skewed based on the context of when and where a student answers BCQS.

“It’s a snapshot of a particular moment,” said Bay-Cheng. “How people are feeling about other classes, what’s going on in their lives—I always try to hold all of that in the background as I look at these.”

This cautious review is especially important when applying BCQs to tenure, reappointment and promotion considerations.

“I think they’re part of a holistic approach, but they are certainly a significant part of that process [of evaluating professors],” said Bay-Cheng. “They provide one perspective on what’s happening in the classroom.”

Evaluation committees are careful to contextualize student feedback appropriately.

“We try to be keenly aware that the average score that a professor gets on a particular question or a particular class gets you only so far in knowing how well that professor is doing in the classroom,” said Franz.

Though the data are considered cautiously, professors frequently incorporate feedback when adjusting future courses.

“I have always sat down with them at the end of the semester and then right before I teach a class again,” said Franz. “In the past, I’ve tried multiple choice tests or more than one midterm [but] the feedback might push me in different directions.”

Professor of History Dallas Denery has worked at the College for the past 15 years and admits that he continually gets the same responses on BCQs. He has, however, used feedback to make structural changes in courses, such as extending course material for his class “The Good Life” to cover issues of the present.

While professors find BCQs useful, many still wonder about their effectiveness.

“I’m not sure they actually tell you how much people get out of a class,” said Denery. “Is there a necessary correlation between people enjoying your class and giving you a good evaluation versus getting the skills out of that class?”

Bay-Cheng worries about the use of the one-to-five rating system, especially since so much is now evaluated in this manner, such as movies, restaurants and even doctors.

“Part of me wonders if the one-to-five rating … has changed now that we rate everything this way,” said Bay-Cheng. “Is that really how we want to view faculty-student relationships in the classroom, which is a primary mode of engagement on a college campus?”

 

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