New FCEs aren’t the right answer

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The majority of students at Carnegie Mellon know FCEs to be detailed online questionnaires. FCEs often seem a ponderous task toward the end of the semester, though many students enjoy the opportunity to give their professors feedback. The problem with online FCEs is that, left to complete FCEs on their own, students tend not to complete them.

Last semester, in an effort to increase response rates, Faculty Senate voted to eliminate the detailed questionnaire. Their solution will look something like this: (1) On a scale of one to five, rate this course. (2) On a scale of one to five, rate your professor. (3) Please leave any comments you have about the course.

That’s right, the form will only include three questions for each course. Switching from a comprehensive rating system to a brief and open-ended form does not solve the real problem: the online form just can’t perform all of the functions it is asked to perform.

As it is, FCEs have many duties. They help students communicate among themselves about which courses are effective, help professors make changes to the course content, and inform the process of tenure and advancement. These are three hefty jobs for one little form to handle.

I understand the logic behind shortening the form in order to increase response rates: decrease the amount of work and students are more likely to complete it. I doubt, however, that the new format will also bring about quality, thoughtful responses.

If professors want quality responses that they can use to change their courses, they should (and some departments still do) administer hard-copy evaluations in class. According to Enrollment Services, the average student spends about 10 minutes on an online FCE, so by taking up only a fraction of their class time, professors can meet or increase both the average amount of time spent on evaluations and the number of respondents.

The tenure process, which can decide a professor’s future livelihood, should not depend on the responses gleaned from an online form. The amount of effort students put into completing the current online FCE forms is not proportional to the weight that the forms are given in terms of evaluating professors for advancement. It’s not that students don’t care, because many really do, but it’s difficult to expend a lot of time on an evaluation during an extremely stressful time of year.

Last, the new form will not allow students to communicate any relevant information to one another about the course. We won’t be able to see how students rated a professor on their ability to give helpful feedback or how important the course materials were. The only thing that will inform our decision is a number between one and five.

If we want quality decision-making to occur on the part of both students and faculty, we must tease out the various functions of evaluation and find an effective way of administering each of them: for immediate feedback, in-class forms; for students, a separate, perhaps year-round system to make comments among themselves; and for the tenure process, a new form of student feedback instituted to obtain the most accurate and thoughtful commentary.