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Senators discuss new teaching evaluation forms

STANFORD -- Undergraduate students will use new forms this fall to evaluate their professors and teaching assistants in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

The forms, which were presented to the Faculty Senate on Oct. 24, represent a significant change in the way these reviews have been conducted in the past.

Previously, there was no systematic, schoolwide evaluation of teaching assistants, said Russell Fernald, professor of psychology and a member of the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement (C-AAA), which oversees teaching evaluations. Fernald, who was reporting for C-AAA in the absence of the group's chair, headed the humanities and sciences faculty committee that developed and piloted the forms last year.

The old course evaluation form, Fernald said, was cursory at best, containing only three general questions. The revised course evaluation form, in contrast, contains 18 questions, which are broken into six areas: instructor's organization/clarity; instructor's ability to engage and challenge students intellectually; instructors interaction with students; course organization, content and evaluation; section/lab integration; and overall rating.

A section at the bottom of the form now asks students to comment on the course in more depth. An edited selection of these comments will be compiled and made available to students in a course guide produced by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).

"I hope [these changes] convince students that this is a serious enterprise and that we need their help in making this useful, " said John Shoven, dean of humanities and sciences, at the senate meeting.

Alane Murdock, ASSU representative at large, said the changes should be well received by students. "If students know that these forms are being used for anything good, they will be more likely to turn them in," she said.

Doug Natelson, ASSU senate representative, added that student-run, student-edited course guides are common at most top universities. In some cases, however, these guides are compiled in an arbitrary manner, with student editors asking their friends what they thought about a particular course. Obtaining student comments as part of the formal course evaluation process, Natelson said, should help reduce the chances of including student comments that are inconsistent with the overall feedback from the forms.

Some members of the Faculty Senate also welcomed the changes to the course evaluations, which will be used in part to set salaries and prepare teaching award nominations.

"The evidence you get from these forms is by far the best evidence we have of teaching ability," said Brad Efron, professor of statistics, who has read many faculty promotion folders and served on committees to choose outstanding teachers. "Students really are the judges of whether they are being taught well."

A few senators, however, urged administrators to take the evaluations with a grain of salt. "They can sure show you when you are going wrong," said Rob Polhemus, professor of English, "but I never want to see too much made of these evaluations."

He noted that conclusions drawn from course evaluations can fluctuate greatly, depending on the percentage of students who fill out and return the forms. One senator suggested mandating 15 minutes of time during the last class for students to fill out the forms. Another senator, who thinks the low percentage of student responses is largely due to students skipping class at the time the forms are distributed, suggested developing an online system where students would be required to evaluate all of their classes in order to obtain their grades. Fernald said he would forward these suggestions to C-AAA.

In other business, senators heard an annual report from the Committee on Undergraduate Studies and a status report on the new language center and the new language requirement.

Lori White, the new director for undergraduate advising, discussed her plans to increase faculty involvement in advising. A key part of this endeavor, she said, is keeping an open line with faculty members and students.

"One of the things that I would like to do is to talk to more of you and have you identify for me when you have had successful advising experiences," said White, who said she hopes that Stanford can move from a single model for freshman and sophomore advising to a series of different models from which faculty and students could choose.

"If I am really going to be successful in this challenge of encouraging more of you to participate in working with first- and second-year students, I am going to need your help, your ideas and your endorsement and I hope that those will be forthcoming," she said.



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