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Why Student Evaluations and Course Reviews Matter – at FAMU, too

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Victoria Dawson, disgraced law professor at Florida A&M’s Law School, exposed a meat-and-potatoes administrative failure that forced me to blacklist FAMU in college admissions consulting. As I said in that article, I can’t in good faith send a student to a school where they won’t receive top-notch preparation for their career. I do, however, support FAMU in full as it attempts to re-establish its place in higher education.

Incoming President James Ammons has an unenviable to-do list that includes solving accreditation woes, overhauling accounting procedures and restoring the image of his University. Now he’s got to take a look at the administration and use of student evaluations. Ms. Dawson’s evaluations were wonderful one semester, terrible the other and the rest are missing. That’s not normal.

Before I go through the article detailing Dawson’s particular case, I’d like to write a bit about the role of student feedback in higher education.

In what seems like a former life, I developed and administered student evaluations for a large research university – I’ve read over 75,000 in full. The first task was to create an evaluation that met the needs of the students and the university. The following factors drive the need for and development of effective course evaluations:

  • Students need aggregated data/reactions for a variety of reasons. Yes, some students flip through the book and choose the easiest classes – that can’t be helped. Those who are serious about their education want to know the format of the class; the expected workload and type of assignments [having four 25pg research papers due at the end of the semester is difficult]; pacing of the class [so it can fit in with an inflexible work schedule, for example]; the list is long. Combine this with numbers like average class size and some simplified satisfaction ratings and the student can combine this data with conversations with academic advisors and professors to choose classes that fit their courses of study.
  • Students want to gravitate toward certain characteristics and avoid others. Reading the written and free response sections of evaluations are critical to finding classes you’ll like or will benefit you the most – especially in a large research university where you may not know anything about a particular professor. Do you want a stodgy-but-informative lecturer? Would you rather be with a professor who encourages open debate with peers and himself? Are you looking for a professor with Conservative views or wish to avoid one? For better or worse, all of these attributes matter to students and have a profound effect on their education.
  • Departments need feedback from students. Department heads and university administration need to know how students feel about their staff’s effectiveness. Too many professors/admins discount student evaluations because of their supposed lack of credibility and value – hence the negative reactions toward sites like ratemyprofessor.com. In truth, most of the comments have little value, but any prof/admin worth his weight in sea salt sifts through the bad, identifies the good and uses the results. Distilled results from evaluations play an important role in monitoring an instructor’s effectiveness and provide uniquely-valuable insight during tenure and promotion processes. An administrator who doesn’t make use of student feedback is neglecting an important part of the evaluative process.
  • Professors need feedback from students. Instructors need to monitor constantly their students’ attitudes toward the class and its instructional value. It isn’t a matter of the customer always being right or pandering to the students’ tastes; this is about identifying successful strategies in teaching and repairing holes in curriculum/instruction. Every professor should want to do this, not only complying fully but encouraging evaluation. It benefits everyone.
  • A credible, comprehensive feedback system is proactive. If your institution has its own well-researched, well-executed – and consequently well-respected – evaluation system highly accessible to all students, you don’t have to worry about ratemyprofessors or any of the other rogue review sites reflecting poorly on your school or staff. Don’t whine and seethe about the unwarranted harm these outsiders are doing – make them irrelevant by administering your own evaluation that’s even better.
  • Accountability, accountability, accountability. Every institution needs to demonstrate accountability at every turn. Having a solid course review system – and then implementing its results with seriousness – demonstrate a commitment to accountability.

This is a simplified list, but you get the idea – student-generated evaluations are important to everyone in higher education. Students, professors and administrators need to take them seriously.

That’s why Dawson’s case is so troubling. A little investigative reporting by the St. Pete Times found this:

In Dawson’s fall 2006 class, 17 of 20 students enrolled bubbled in the “assessment of instruction” forms, and 12 of them rated Dawson excellent or very good. Dawson got high marks in all 7 categories, ranging from “communication of ideas and information” to “respect and concern for students” to “facilitation of learning.”

First, FAMU needs to change its evaluation. An evaluation shouldn’t appear as though it was made from the Education Jargon Generator – everyone in higher education should understand that bad questions = bad data. However, if 95% of FAMU students have the same interpretation of “facilitation of learning,” I’ll admit that I’m wrong.

Second, congratulations to Dawson on a round of glowing evaluations. The sample size isn’t huge, but as the college evaluation adage goes, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Or, in Dawson’s case, 17. The spring semester wasn’t as kind:

In Dawson’s spring class, though, 14 of 20 students responded, and while none rated her excellent or good, 11 rated her poor, with correspondingly low marks in every category. Mystery question No. 1: Why would Dawson’s fall class have such a peachy view of her, while her spring class thought she was the pits?

That not only is troubling, it’s highly unusual. It’s rare to see such a dramatic change in a professor’s evaluations without some specific reason [for example, I saw it once when a professor suffered a massive illness in December and missed some time during his Spring classes]. As an administrator, I’d look into this immediately – legitimate or not, something is wrong and the University owes it to everyone to find out.

The Times wanted to compare these two semesters to Dawson’s past evaluations:

Mystery question No. 2: What did students in Dawson’s other classes think? The Times requested the forms June 13, and within a day FAMU emailed the two cited in this blog post. But the forms for Dawson’s other classes – including the classes she taught in 2005-2006 – are apparently either missing or non-existent or not being turned over. After The Times sent a series of emails to FAMU officials seeking either the records or an explanation, Dean Witherspoon emailed a two-sentence response at nearly 8 o’clock Friday, saying the evaluations for Dawson’s elder law class – and a few other courses last year – were not administered.

Witherspoon doesn’t say why. She also doesn’t say what happened to the forms for Dawson’s 2005-06 classes. (The Times’ records request was not limited to one year.)

If I had to guess, I’d say that nothing sinister was going on. I think FAMU doesn’t take seriously their evaluations – which makes sense when you consider their lax oversight in general – and neither did Dawson. This is likely negligence, not outright malice or suppression.

Even though there likely isn’t a conspiracy here, this incident speaks to the culture of FAMU. They lack credibility and have brought it upon themselves by not giving due attention to accountability. President Ammons needs to restore a seriousness of purpose mixed with accountability if FAMU is to reclaim its reputation.

FAMU can start its recovery by taking care of some of the smaller projects. I’d like to see the University develop a new course evaluation system, including plans for its implementation in University matters and an effort to market a fresh, accessible system to its students.

And FAMU, I’m at your service. I’m available by e-mail/phone and am more than willing to help you turn this around.

*The famed historical drawing thumbnailed above is titled “The S.O.S.”

2 Responses to “Why Student Evaluations and Course Reviews Matter – at FAMU, too”

  1. FAMU Student says:

    “Dawson’s 2005-06 classes”

    Gee that was the year I took her classes and our class was pretty unanimous regarding her incompetence.

  2. Matthew says:

    Honestly, I can’t imagine a class rating such an instructor well. Poor writing is a loud signal exposing poor communication in general, and poor communication kills effective teaching. I have read many reviews which conclude that even if an instructor is very well-liked and personable, they are exposed as an incompetent instructor.

    I’m not surprised at all that your year’s reviews went missing. It’s a shame, really – FAMU students deserve better than this. I hope accountability will be a major factor on the FAMU campus throughout and especially after the accreditation/probation process.

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