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Monday, May 16, 2022

Policy Changes Course Evaluations

This past May, administrators approved a new policy that offers professors the opportunity to teach courses in which student evaluations are not given to administrators for review.

The policy, effective this fall, allows professors to teach one course every two years with this option at their disposal.

Traditionally, evaluations are first read by administrators, including a promotions committee and reappointments committee, and then given to the professor to read over. The policy change eliminates these steps. Though students will continue to complete the evaluations, only the professor will read them. Professors are not obligated to inform students that their evaluations will not be read by the administration.

Supporters of the policy hope that the policy changes will give professors greater freedom to experiment in the classroom.

Former Provost and Executive Vice President Alison Byerly, who is on academic leave this year as a visiting scholar in literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spearheaded the policy change. Last year, Byerly appointed the Task Forces on Curricular Innovation to consider pedagogy and decisions related to the overall curriculum at the College.

"In listening to faculty discussion ... it became clear to me that for many faculty, fear of the possible negative consequences of taking chances in the classroom could stand in the way of curricular experimentation," wrote Byerly in an email.

Dean of Faculty and Philip Battell/Sarah Stewart Professor of Biology Andrea Lloyd chaired one of the task forces.

"As a task force we really wanted to think about removing as many barriers to innovation as possible, and this seemed like a pretty simple place to start," wrote Lloyd in an email.

She cited her own experience in reworking her biology class, with the predictable bumps and adjustments that had to be made afterward, as an example for why she believes this policy change is important.

"That experience is not uncommon: teaching takes some trial and error," wrote Lloyd. "There is no way around that – it is really something inherent to the art of teaching. But that trial and error can be nerve wracking – particularly for junior faculty – if you feel like you are going to be judged on those first attempts to do something new and different."

While Byerly said that many

faculty and administrators were supportive of the new policy, others raised questions about whether or not having a course go unrecorded in the course response form would affect the evaluation of a candidate's teaching.

Ellis Professor of English and Liberal Arts John Bertolini questions the impact this policy will have on the process of professors gaining tenure.

"Student evaluations are a key element in the decision to grant or not grant tenure," wrote Bertolini in an email. "[I do not understand] how reading, in effect, a censored version of student evaluations helps the decision."

Byerly does not think that the evaluation of a professor's teaching will be diminished.

"The Promotions Committee and the Reappointments Committee were very supportive because they know from reading many files that in fact one or two courses don't make as big a difference as many faculty think," wrote Byerly.

"In reading [course response forms], they look for patterns across time, and across different course types."

C. A. Dana Professor of English and American Literatures David Price feels indifferent toward the policy change, though he recognizes the importance of student evaluations.

"It's an interesting assumption [that retaining student evaluations from administration would increase creativity in the classroom]," said Price. "I don't even think about student evaluations. Each class has different students with a different chemistry, and that's what I focus on."

Byerly said that the recent approval of Pass/D/Fail courses for students, which allow students to take a course and pass, receive a D or fail, influenced her thinking in regards to evaluations of professors' performances.

"It seemed to me that if we were asking faculty to trust that students would work hard in a class even when they are not receiving a letter grade, we should trust faculty to do their best as teachers even when they are not being formally evaluated," wrote Byerly.

Students seem supportive of the change for professors as well.

"It is a fantastic idea," said Chelsea Edgar '13. "I think everyone in the college community stands to benefit when professors feel empowered to get more creative with their syllabi."

The policy will be effective immediately, allowing professors to teach courses without student course evaluations sent to administration this fall semester.