Despite misconceptions, survey promotes class improvement

By Alex Bonus |

Senior Kia Miller suffered the basic college nightmare last year — a boring professor, a semester-long class and a daily reason to refuse rolling out of bed.

When it came time to fill out IDEA surveys, the forms students complete at the end of every semester to rate their classes and teachers, Miller hoped some bad reviews would make it so future students wouldn’t endure her same experience.

“A student wrote a paper and then read it out loud to the class about how [the teacher’s] methods were ineffective and how his continuous degradation of our generation was far from motivating,” she said. “We then proceeded to fill out the forms and we all were very honest of our opinions of him.”

To Miller’s surprise, her classmates’ negative reactions seemed to be overlooked, and that professor still works for Flagler.

Like many students, she wonders if her opinion matters at all.

The IDEA surveys come from the Individual Development and Educational Assessment Center at the University of Kansas and are administered every semester through Flagler’s Department of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectives. Department director Randi Hagen — whose office is overflowing with idea forms, envelopes and No. 2 pencils — said she will send surveys for this semester around Nov. 1.

But before any student touches pencil to paper, Hagen wants to make sure they understand what their comments mean.

“Some teachers say the form doesn’t ask the questions they think are important, and some students aren’t interested in filling them out and just Christmas tree the answer sheet or something like that,” she said.

Hagen believes this type of disinterest does a disservice to both students and teachers.

“Hopefully all semester your teacher has given you feedback on how you can improve,” she said. “This is the same thing in the other direction.”

Flagler uses the IDEA center’s diagnostic survey, which allows students to critique both their instructor’s use of 20 teaching methods and also the progress they made toward 12 learning objectives, adjusting scores for circumstances beyond the instructor’s control, like the amount of studying a student did for the class.

Surveys remain anonymous and are returned to the IDEA Center, which generates reports that are sent about a week later to the teacher, the teacher’s department chair and the dean of academic affairs.

“You look at the form and if you wanted to accomplish, for instance, goal 4 and 5 or 19 and 20, it lists the specific teacher behaviors you should have emphasized,” she said. “Then you can look at the student feedback on how well you implemented those behaviors.”

Hagen sees the form as a type of experiment, so professors can make changes in one class during one semester and compare results from the IDEA surveys with a control class during the same semester.

“It’s very personalized to the teacher and shows them what they think is important in the class versus what they are actually doing,” she said.

The forms, however, aren’t meant to get rid of teachers who students deem ineffective — they’re meant to make improvements to that teacher’s class.

“If the person is struggling as a teacher, chances are the chair and the dean both know about that before the end of the semester,” she said. “But with this form they can then sit down with the person and go through some of this.”

Hagen added that most professors are hired based on good teaching skills, especially because Flagler’s focus is on teaching and not on research, like at larger universities.

“It’s rare you’ll have someone that’s a terrible teacher in the first place,” she said.

Associate Professor of History Michael Butler agrees.

“Everybody has a bad semester, but professors won’t be fired for one bad semester just like a student won’t be kicked out of school forever for one bad semester,” Butler said. “What happens often is that the professor is given a chance to evaluate their methods and maybe revise the class in a way that satisfies some of those complaints.”

Butler uses the IDEA surveys in most of his classes and tweaks them every semester based on the feedback he receives.

“The professors who use them for the reasons they’re meant to be used for will profit from them, while professors who don’t take them as seriously don’t profit,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

However, Butler understands why some teachers might get a bad reputation from some students in one semester and a great reputation from other students in a different semester.

“A lot of the changes that occur as a result of the IDEA forms, the students will never see,” he said. “A student may not ever take the professor again to see if there have been changes, even though there may have been substantive improvements.”

He also noted that students don’t seem to understand how important their comments really are. When it comes to a teacher’s contract renewal, three things are analyzed — the professor’s professional development, campus service and teaching.

“A lot of times when a discussion is held about teaching, it’s the IDEA forms that are referenced,” he said. “I can say I’m an effective teacher, but IDEA forms can support or refute that.”

Butler hopes that both students and teachers take the IDEA forms seriously this semester.

“I don’t look at it as a time for students to bash me,” he said. “I look at it as a chance to gauge my effectiveness as a teacher.”

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