Students suggest changes for teaching evaluations; honors program projects tackle real-world issues

Some students like their professors "hot" as chili peppers. And others savor the knowledge that comes with the classroom experience.

A seminar for Davis Honors Challenge -- a four-year, campus-wide honors program -- recently examined how to improve professor and course evaluations for both students and faculty members.

As part of the academic process, UC Davis students assess professors and courses each quarter. These evaluations serve as important feedback on courses and are used in the tenure, merits and promotions process for determining the advancement of faculty members.

This particular study -- based on input from more than 3,000 students in total -- focused on the College of Engineering, but what students discovered might prove of interest to other campus units seeking to polish their own professor and course evaluation processes, administrators said.

Last month, students Rana Ansari-Jaberi, Jennifer Liu, Kyanna Williams and Mike Yang presented their research to Patricia Turner, vice provost for undergraduate studies, Billy Sanders, assistant dean in the College of Engineering, Enrique Lavernia, dean of the College of Engineering, and Carrie Devine, Davis Honors Challenge counselor.

"We're looking at how to increase the value of evaluations and meet the needs of both students and professors," said Ansari-Jaberi, a student assistant to Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, who is majoring in international relations, French and psychology. Liu is majoring in managerial economics, Williams in American studies; and Yang in computer science.

Among other things, the research suggests that students need to be mindful how important professor and course evaluations are to their instructors' careers and fellow students who potentially benefit from refined courses.

Plans are for the college to continue further research into course and professor evaluations.

Evaluation study findings

Using online surveys and other means of research, students found evaluations are most effective when they consist of 15 to 20 multiple choice questions and four to five answer choices. Evaluations should not offer more than one type of answer choice style, they noted.

Respondents also preferred fewer open-ended or essay response formats (they take too long), the use of neutral or "non-leading" questions, and a sensitivity to the timing of when the evaluations are distributed.

Timing was a major issue. "Not enough time" or "given at a bad time" were the top responses by students who said they did not complete evaluations.

To help encourage greater student participation in course evaluations, the student researchers suggested attaching an explanatory note on the documents telling why they are important to the educational process.

As for faculty, survey research suggested that professors should remember to leave the room and not teach during the time students are asked to fill out evaluations. And, departments should strive to instruct faculty in the "do's" and "don'ts" of evaluation guidelines.

The study also found that 44 percent of the student respondents preferred evaluations take place "near the end of the quarter and before the last day of class." About 32 percent preferred that evaluations be handed out the "last day of class before the final."

Student investigator Williams further noted that distributing evaluations midway through courses would allow instructors to make changes before the end of the quarter.

Online Web sites independent of UC Davis, and other universities for that matter, have recently sprung up as one popular way to rate professors. However, some are more legitimate than others; one site uses a chili pepper to rate whether a professor is "hot."

"Students should not be led astray by such Web sites," said Ansari-Jaberi. "This suggests, however, the importance of a credible evaluation resource."

Students also explored using more online evaluations. They found that Web-based evaluations are easier to tabulate, they require an incentive for students to participate. The MyUCDavis portal was mentioned as a mechanism to offer online evaluations to a broader student population, with a UC Davis Bookstore gift certificate as a possible incentive.

Ansari-Jaberi said the annual Student Viewpoint publication -- created by ASUCD -- is a good source for professor ratings, but it has not published for two years because of budgetary cutbacks.

Building better thinkers

Davis Honors Challenge is an open-application, campus-wide honors program for motivated students who want more challenging course work, closer contacts with faculty and dynamic interactions with similarly motivated peers. The program offers students the opportunity each year to broaden their analytical skills.

"The fourth-year project requires the students to find a real-world problem that needs to be solved," said Turner, who, with Sanders, served as a project mentor for the students who appraised course evaluations.

Vice provost Turner noted that Davis Honors Challenge helps students learn how to think critically and analytically and to work collaboratively. From enhancing research skills, improving oral and written communication skills and acquainting them with electronic communication, the program develops the kind of skills valued in the marketplace as well as academia.

Unlike many other honors programs, Davis Honors Challenge does not select students based on GPA or SAT scores. Instead, students must complete an essay application. Since its inaugural year in 1996, more than 900 students have participated in this program. This year, the program boasted seven fourth-year projects.

Other endeavors involved how to create a video highlighting the environment and culture of the campus, raise clinic funding, establish an annual one-day leadership conference for UC Davis student leaders, raise organ donation awareness, improve the Orchard Park community gardens, and establish a free pharmaceuticals influx for the student-run Shifa Clinic.

Assistant dean Sanders believes most engineering teaching evaluation forms don't adequately assess the strengths and weaknesses of faculty from the perspective of the classroom student.

"Asking the right questions is key to obtaining meaningful data," he said. "These four student researchers have certainly opened my eyes, and we plan to pursue a better means of evaluating our faculty's teaching by incorporating their findings into our process."

Lavernia agreed. "The feedback we get as faculty and administrators is critical. I'd love to see this continued."

Media Resources

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

Amy Agronis, (530) 752-1932,

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