Course evaluations going digital

Starting this term, students will be afforded more flexibility in evaluating their instructors and courses as Western goes digital with its end-of-term questionnaires. It’s a move, university officials say, that will provide deeper data and a better understanding of teaching across campus.

The digital version replaces around 250,000 paper questionnaires every semester.

With around three weeks remaining in their courses, students will receive an email with a link to a questionnaire that can be filled out during class or at a later date on any electronic device. If students aren’t in class the day the questionnaire is released, they may still participate.

Students will receive follow-up emails if they haven’t completed the questionnaire by the last day before the exam period begins.

In its inaugural year, the digital questionnaire will reproduce the paper version from last year exactly.

“We’re going to make sure we generate the same kinds of reports that were prepared in the past, so we will see the same kind of data,” said John Doerksen, Vice-Provost (Academic Programs).

Next fall, however, the university will offer new options within the questionnaire never available in paper form, including the ability for faculties and departments to seek mid-course feedback and access comparative data and more sophisticated reports.

“That kind of flexibility is really helpful,” Doerksen said. “The software will allow us to have a more sophisticated way of arranging the questions so we can have core university questions, questions that the instructors wish to choose and questions that an academic unit may wish to select. There is more flexibility to the instrument itself.”

These reports could be helpful tools for academic units as they go through their review process, Doerksen continued.

“It’s just another way of engaging in student feedback to see what’s working and what isn’t, and then be able to make changes mid-course to benefit clarity and student learning,” he said.

Ultimately, Doerksen hopes the university can use the deeper data set to frame the kinds of programming it offers through areas like the Teaching Support Centre. If the university can identify gaps where greater clarity or pedagogical practice would be helpful, it could then provide programing to support faculty who may be interested in developing their teaching practices, Doerksen said.

Despite the digital transition, some traditions will remain.

“Historically, time was set aside to complete the evaluations in class, so students typically started filling out the questionnaire but would often take time to finish it after class and submit it later. The online questionnaire allows students to do this with more ease,” he said.

Doerksen stressed it is still best practice to set aside class time “to give a sense of presence and priority to this process.”

As the time approaches to fill out a course’s questionnaire, the university will launch an awareness campaign to inform students of the change. Information will be available via social media and email to make sure the new process doesn’t get lost.

The change follows a pilot of the questionnaires over the summer.

“I was pleased with the pilot project. We had more faculty colleagues volunteer to participate than we had space for. That was great.” Doerksen said.

Involving 18 faculty members, the pilot included a cross-section of courses from small and large, to offsite field and online, to undergraduate and grad level. The pilot ensured a number of different types of courses were tested.

“We didn’t have any technical glitches; the system worked smoothly and we had good participation rates,” Doerksen said. “We compared them (the participation rates) with what had happened last year in paper form and they were either slightly below or slightly above. On the whole, I am very pleased.”

Along with the pilot, focus groups with students were conducted. Students appreciated the flexibility to complete the questionnaire online. The data showed more than half of the students completed the questionnaires on mobile devices, which allowed them more time to think about their comments and write more without time constraints.