Finding a balance with USRIs

At the end of every semester, students at the University of Calgary are asked to fill out course evaluations. Although students may not see any changes to the system this year, the Universal Student Ratings of Instruction surveys are being scrutinized by the Students’ Union to meet the needs of students and administrators.

“We need to strike this balance between the feedback mechanisms for administrations and faculty and students, which right now we don’t have,” said SU vice-president academic Alyssa Stacy. “Students really don’t know what the USRI is doing.”

“Faculties do look at these scores and work with the professor, the problem is students don’t see that,” continued Stacy. “There is this broader issue that students don’t hear what happens from the USRI, they don’t hear the feedback, they don’t know where they can express their concerns.”

A group of students approached Stacy with a USRI model they had developed for a research project. The model addressed what the students would like to see. Stacy presented the model to the Student Legislative Council who supported many of the student-friendly ideas.

Stacy said administration requires a survey that meets their needs as well.

“The Student Legislative Council had a broader discussion on how they would like to see USRIs change,” said Stacy. “The broader purpose of this is to then go back to the USRI team and give them this feedback.”

Students can see past USRI numbers online when registering for classes. Professors can also explain at the beginning of a course the changes that they made based on previous USRI responses, but this isn’t required.

Ratings are used for assessing whether or not to extend tenure to professors and are included in the instructor’s annual report.

“The institution takes it very seriously,” said director of institutional analysis Allan Starr.

USRI surveys also faced criticism from students who had to provide their student identification number, but administration recently amended this so students will not have to identify themselves. The benefit of online surveys make it possible for the administration to validate that the student is actually in the course without attaching an ID number.

Some students feel that changes to the system are necessary.

“I’ve had professors actually tell me that unless they’re in the top or bottom 10 per cent, student evaluations have no real impact on their actual pay cheque,” said a fourth-year student who wished to remain anonymous. “That’s not to say that they don’t look at the results and professors don’t take comments into consideration but as a student I don’t use the results because I find the statistical printouts that they give you hard to understand. Out of all my time here I’ve only had two or three professors I’d go out of my way to say that they were terrible and I’ve done about 40 classes here. There’s been more really good profs than bad ones.”

The USRI consists of one survey with standardized questions and is administered in the same way for every course. This consistency allows for comparability across classes and courses. Instructors can also compare their results to others teaching the same course.

Faculties administer their own surveys which generally ask for comments instead of ratings.

USRIs were paper-based until 2004, when they moved exclusively online.

“The response rates were deemed to not be high enough to provide quality results,” said Starr.

Two years ago the method was switched back to paper-based with an online option. Since then, Starr said the response rate has doubled.

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