The Great SFF Debate
—David Waldstreicher, Faculty Herald Editor
The administration has launched an ambitious pilot program testing online Student Feedback Forms, and recent weeks have seen an outpouring of discussion about the pros and cons (including time set aside for the subject at this Thursday’s University Senate meeting). Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Peter Jones has emphasized that the online SFFs are an expansion of the voluntary experiment launched last year, and that assistant professors and NTTs should not participate. He acknowledges that student response rates have been in the 26-44% range and pale compared to the 71-79% response rates for the SFFs administered in class.
The Student Feedback Forms Committee discussed the expansion of the pilot program. But the message conveyed in at least several of the colleges has been that this is more than an experiment.
TAUP stepped into the communication gap in November, appropriately enough since SFFs are used to evaluate members of the bargaining unit for promotion, merit (theoretically, where teaching is deemed meritorious), and tenure. In its memo, TAUP noted that “we have heard contradictory things regarding the status of this online program from several sources. On the one hand, we’re told the pilot program is still in the testing stage and that no decision to move wholesale to it has been made. On the other hand, faculty are telling us that their Deans’ offices are presenting the push toward online as inevitable....”
We should not be surprised to see Deans’ offices once again appear as enforcers of policies that appear to the faculty to come from nowhere in particular – and certainly not from Senate or joint faculty-administration committees. Proper procedures for a matter of great consequence to faculty are at stake.
The arguments in favor of moving to online forms, or at least trying to see if they will work, are serious and substantial. A thoughtful email from an assistant dean in my college mentioned the 40 trees worth of paper used every semester. Class time would be saved at the busy end of term. “Early adopters will be asked to provide additional feedback after the process is over which will be considered as the process is refined for future semesters” – get on board, in other words, before the ship sails.
Critics have also mounted impressive arguments. Forms filled out on line may be more likely to emphasize quickly clicked numerical ratings – the administration’s main interest, some say – than the thoughtful written feedback most valued by instructors. Low response rates could make already questionable measures of teaching prowess even more dubious. Would
online forms cater to students who don’t even show up to class as opposed to those who do? As one faculty member observed in the TAUP forum, “we already have an online rating system – the notorious RateMyProfessor.com.
Why not just use that in lieu of CATE/SFF scores. If we go to online student evals aren't we simply creating a Temple based RateMyProfessor.com?” The idea broached at a Senate meeting to raise low online response rates by making participation mandatory, or necessary for receiving grades, has been rejected as “coercive” to the students. Other schools are trying incentives. An April 7, 2010 article in the Boston Globe has MIT offering pizza and Harvard dangling an early look at grades. Boston University was considering tougher options, perhaps still reflecting the John Silber legacy. In a limited sense, it appears that the institutional culture matters.
What would a solution that takes into account our institutional culture look like? I hesitate to say. But the media and academia are now chock full of studies that take for granted the possibility that online activity of all kinds not only reflects but also has the capability to change culture, perhaps all the more so because of the way it effects change through new behaviors that feel freely chosen and liberating. We ought to think carefully about whose freedom and whose culture is being privileged here.
My sense is that it is the students and the administrators whose comfort level will be increased by online forms. It doesn't seem an accident that online SFFs would complete the process of taking assessment literally out of the hands of the faculty (now we won't even have the privilege of taking the envelopes from our mailboxes to the classroom). It is the faculty’s subculture – and especially their individual and collective authority - that will continue to be eroded by going electronic with a form of assessment which already has its problems.
An alternative would be to do quantitative evaluations online and qualitative ones in class – or to give students multiple opportunities, in class and online, to give thoughtful feedback in prose (which is after all one of the things they are supposed to be learning how to do well in college). If there remains a cost to this in trees, well…. the rise of online text has not reduced the demand for that ancient technology called books, either.
Admitting that the current assessment system is imperfect means that faculty cannot defend it as the solution for all time. We all share responsibility for assessment, especially since the SFFs have multiple uses. If Temple goes electronic, it seems likely that faculty will have to do “their own” paper forms or find other ways to perform and document assessment – and to insist that those processes count in the merit, tenure, and promotion processes. The simple fact is that currently our best practices of soliciting feedback during the semester, such as self-administered questionnaires, are currently inadmissible for merit, tenure and promotion; and our peer evaluations are few and far between. Until that changes, SFFs in whatever form simply do not belong to us, and we can’t be surprised to find them slipping out of our hands into the ether.
The Faculty Herald remains dedicated to promoting a dialogue with and among the faulty of Temple University and invites readers to write the editor in response to anything in this or a previous issue, or on other topics of interest and import to Temple Faculty. New letters sent to the editor will be published to a prominent place on the Herald’s website (www.temple.edu/herald) within one or two weeks of the editor receiving them and will be included in the next issue of the Herald.
|Letters to the editor should be emailed to David Waldstreicher at firstname.lastname@example.org