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News & Stories: 2009-10

No marks for trying
May 21, 2010

The posters appeared around on bulletin boards around campus a few weeks ago.

A poster about student evaluationsOne features an exhausted student at her desk, and its tagline reads: "You get graded for your hard work … shouldn’t your profs?” Another shows a happy-looking student with the tagline: “Like your classes? Tell your profs.”

The videos appeared on Vimeo around the same time: One features professors sobbing in front of their computer monitors. Another shows a student in class, texting: “Oh my gosh this class is awful,” to a friend. The third features a professor lecturing in class, with a “wah-wah-wah” soundtrack replacing his voice. “Boring class got you down?” the caption on this one reads: “FILL OUT YOUR EVALUATIONS!”

Persuading their peers

Both posters and videos are part of a student project for CAS 305: "Persuasion and Propaganda.” Seniors Kurt Van Allsburg and Betsy Sneller created the materials to convince their fellow students to fill out course evaluations. The materials contain the Web address

Van Allsburg and Sneller linked the three videos to the Calvin listerv "Student News” and to their individual Facebook pages; together, they have accumulated 3,000 views.

"We don’t need to trick students or bash them over the head with manipulative or misleading techniques,” said Van Allsburg. “We believe that if we present students with the advantages of filling out evaluations, they will do so.” The pair also persuaded professors to offer bribes, send e-mail reminders and use other techniques to get students to fill out evaluations.

Watching the numbers

The administrator of Calvin’s evaluation system, Mike Stob, is watching Van Allsburg’s and Sneller’s campaign with interest: “I don’t think students think this is important,” Stob said. He bases that opinion on Calvin’s response rate—the percentage of completed evaluations—in the three years since the college switched to an online evaluation system.

Kurt Van AllsburgPrior to 2008, Calvin students evaluated their courses—their professors— using a paper system. But in the spring of that year, course evaluations went to the Web. Students now log into a Web site and register their delight or dismay with a particular class by clicking through an online form and adding some comments. “It works pretty smoothly,” said Stob of the site, hosted by IOTA Solutions, “except that people aren’t using it.”

In 2008, the Calvin evaluation system had a response rate of 88 percent. When the college put the evaluation process online, the response rate dropped to 56 percent, and it has hovered between 50 and 60 percent ever since.

Stob says that students may not know how important their opinions really are: “I don't think that most students realize how much attention is paid to these evaluations,” he said.

Grading professors

Student evaluations not only give professors good feedback for improving their teaching, Stob said, they play a significant role in how their professors are reviewed for job performance. Evaluations affect professorial salary increases, promotions, even re-appointments. “It’s a component in teaching evaluation,” said Stob, who also serves as Calvin’s dean for institutional effectiveness, “and teaching is the most important of the faculty member's responsibilities.”

A student evaluation posterWhile it remains to be seen whether Van Allsburg and Sneller’s efforts have converted students to evaluation, their posters did trigger a discussion on the faculty listserv “Calvin Matters.” At least one of the faculty members in that discussion isn’t sure that online evaluations serve them, or their students, well:

"There is disconnect between the on-line evaluation and the actual classroom experience,” said history professor Frans van Liere. "Students are more likely to take evaluations seriously and respond genuinely if they are still sitting in the same class room. They are also less likely,” he added, “to mix my class up with another one.”

Saving trees, losing feedback

The paper system did have some advantages, Stob conceded. Evaluations were administered as part of a regular class period. Professors passed out the forms and left the room, and students spent a half-hour filling them out. But, every year, paper evaluations placed a big workload on Calvin’s department assistants. “And then there was an issue of using 35, 000 sheets of paper a year,” Stob added. “That’s a lot of paper.”

Calvin’s response rate matches those of colleges and universities around the nation, Stob said. Many institutions have raised their rates by requiring students to fill out course evaluations—and fining them or withholding their grades for failing to do so. “I think there are some who think a course evaluation is just part of the course,” said Stob. "You finish the course and fill out the evaluation. There are others who think it’s wrong to require students to do that.”

The solution for Calvin’s response rate problem ultimately rests with the college’s professional status committee: “Longterm, we won’t be satisfied with 60 percent,” Stob predicted.

Randy Bytwerk"The problem is to convince students that this is worth their time,” said Randy Bytwerk, the Calvin professor of communication arts and sciences who teaches "Persuasion and Propaganda." “We find time for the things that are important to us."

He has discovered a way to nudge the response rate for his classes up to 75 percent. He just keeps reminding his students about evaluations. Also, he spends a half-hour at the end of the semester talking to his students about the importance of evaluations. Bytwerk says things like this:

"Say you have a really bad class, and you don’t evaluate it. Twenty-five years from now, one of your offspring will have a class with Professor X, and you’ll say, “I had a class with Professor X, and I didn’t do anything about it!”

~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing.

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How profs go wrong

On a recent Monday in May, senior Abby Schartner was studying in a booth in Johnny’s. The 22-year-old English major had already gone online and completed her course evaluations, and she was grading down for disorganization.

"Some of the easiest classes I’ve had are the result of disorganization,” Schartner said. “If you look at the syllabus, it’s not looked upon as easy per se, but then midway through, the prof is disorganized and can’t manage the class. It turns into an easy course then.”

Abby Schartner

Communication arts and sciences (CAS) professor Quentin Schultze, a veteran of 28 years of teaching evaluations, is well-acquainted with the complaint. “Calvin students are likely to be more critical of a professor for being too easy rather than too hard …,” Schultze said. “They greatly dislike poorly organized classes and faculty making changes to requirements during the term. They appreciate tough professors who require them to learn what they know they should learn.”

The prof who wants high marks on an evaluation must have three qualities, said Schultze’s CAS colleague Randy Bytwerk: The prof really knows his or her stuff; the prof is passionate; he or she cares about the students. “You’ll forgive a lot of things that would bug you … if you didn’t believe those things were true,” he maintained. Professors can learn a lot from student input, Bytwerk added: “I believe we learn to teach by doing dumb things.”

His CAS colleague Carl Plantinga agreed: “I have learned a good deal from student evaluations in the past,” he wrote on Calvin Matters. I’ve learned that I am “cute but clumsy,' and that I should not wear black shoes with khaki pants.”

More recently, Plantinga offered a more nuanced take on the issue: “Sometimes student evaluations are utterly baffling … But most of the time, one can learn quite a lot.  At the very least, you can learn what the students like and dislike, although that isn't necessarily the best gauge of what is educationally best for them.”

Bytwerk agreed: “Our job is not to make students happy. Sometimes, that’s telling a student that he or she is not as good as he or she thinks.”

Schultze has fond memories of the time then-CAS chair Bytwerk called Schultze into his office to review a “critical evaluation." The chair showed his colleague the following feedback: “This guy couldn’t bench press 40 pounds.” Schultze said he thought for a minute. then responded: “I think he or she is being generous. I probably couldn’t do 30.”