by Barbara Black
Students are the experts on what's useful for their learning, Heather MacKenzie said firmly. "They can give the most amazing advice."
For the past two years, the University has been automating and overhauling its massive system of teaching evaluation. MacKenzie, Assistant Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS), said the objective is to whittle the "80 to 85" forms circulating at the end of every term down to eight or nine.
The first mark of success is a Faculty-wide evaluation form in Commerce and Administration, achieved with the help of a committee led by Professor Arshad Ahmad. Now it is hoped that faculty members will be given workshops on how to use the form effectively for both teaching improvement and for making decisions about contract renewal, promotion and tenure.
The Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science and the Centre for Continuing Education are also well on the way to refining their evaluation forms.
Designing a minimum number of forms for a variety of academic cultures is difficult, but maintaining many forms is expensive and the quality of the existing questionnaires is uneven across departments, MacKenzie said. When the new system is in place, two parallel systems, one old and one new, will probably have to be run until everybody catches up.
MacKenzie, who has three degrees from Concordia and a wide-ranging background in pedagogy, technology and counselling, has made careful study of teaching evaluation, which has an impressive body of research behind it. In her view, as well as being a tool in the granting of tenure and the renewal of contracts, the teaching evaluation form is a great opportunity for teachers to improve their skills.
"Only a small minority of the faculty members who contact us (for consultation) are referred to us by their chairs," she said. "By far, most do so on their own because they're conscientious and they want to improve," she said. In many cases, they are acting on feedback they got from their evaluations.
She has worked with more than 200 professors, many of them thrilled to learn new ways of communicating with their students.
One new faculty member organized his class into learning groups, and came to her to find an evaluation form that would give the students a chance to assess not only the result of their project, but the group-learning process itself. That's the kind of thing she likes to see. In other cases, professors have been gently dissuaded from pursuing a classroom style that might have been less than successful.
As for the student-generated Web site, Profscan, MacKenzie was fairly scathing.
"It's completely unreliable and invalid," she said. "There are too few entries -- 65 per cent should be the minimum sample, and in some cases here, there was only one entry for one course. There's no mean or standard deviation, and the comments are anonymous, which could be very hurtful and is against the collective agreement."
MacKenzie has a better idea. "I think the students should work with the unions to find a way to publish or disseminate our evaluations in a responsible way."