By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
In my previous article, “Are Low Returns the Norm for Online Student Evaluations?” (10.7.10), I asked several questions about return rates of online student evaluations. Two people responded, a lower return rate than I hoped for. However, both offered some information that I decided to work into another article addressing these issues in more depth.
As I reported then, my institution piloted a commercial online student evaluation system for evaluating faculty and courses in spring 2010. Five instructors participated, collecting feedback for nine courses. The classes were taught face-to-face and online. The response rate on the online evaluations was 44%. I also have spoken with other faculty who have used various online evaluation systems, including Blackboard, our Learning Management System, which students are accustomed to using. They reported that about 50% of the students who are asked to complete online evaluations do so. That has been my experience as well.
Even though my university (and I) would like to move toward online evaluations, these low return rates are a major concern because student evaluations are a critical part of promotion and tenure reports and annual reviews. Until higher rates of response on online evaluations can be guaranteed, faculty will be reluctant to use them. In response to the questions in my initial essay, I was directed toward several articles which address these issues of low response rates and how to solve this problem.
Miller (2010) states in “Online Evaluations Show Same Results, Lower Response Rate” (Chronicle of Higher Education ) that there are advantages to using the online evaluations, including saving class time, reducing paper use, and easier and more efficient record-keeping. However, she referred to an analysis of data from Kansas State University’s IDEA Center, which showed a large gap between responses on paper evaluations, 78%, and online evaluations, 53%.
In “In-class Course Evaluations Ditched for Online Surveys,” Smilovitz (2008) also points to the almost 20% difference in response rates. He was reporting on the University of Michigan’s move from paper to online evaluations, which was being touted as a green initiative that will also result in money-savings. Low response rates was a major concern for university faculty and administration. They felt these were linked to the lack of incentives. Based on data analysis, it appears that students tend to take the time to respond to online evaluations if they really like or really dislike the instructor (not the course, but the instructor). University officials are counting on good communication and marketing to solve the low response rate issue.
In addition to the reasons stated above for using online evaluations, some people reported that when students do respond, they tend to provide longer and more thoughtful responses to open-ended questions than they do in traditional paper-and-pencil evaluations.
Because using online evaluations makes sense for the reasons mentioned, how can we move forward in using them and getting response rates that satisfy faculty and administrators?
Studies by Dommeyer et al. (2004) and Ballantyne (2003), as reported by Laubsch (2006) in “Online and In-person Evaluations: A Literature Review and Exploratory Comparison,” showed that faculty actively promoting the completion of online evaluations had higher response rates.
Thorpe (2003), in “Online Student Evaluation of Instruction: An Investigation of Non-Response Bias,” suggests incentives as the way to increase student participation. He specifically suggests blocking access to grades as one incentive and telling students that this is a mechanism for sharing information with other students about courses and instructors. The first seems to be more of a punishment than an incentive, although he suggests that the block can be easily overridden by the student. The second would require that the evaluation system be capable of providing this information publicly.
Because Miller’s article was published online, readers were able to make comments and suggestions. Several suggested ways to encourage higher participation, including offering students early access to final grades; locking students out of their courses if they do not participate; and providing a monetary reward. The system that my university piloted had a function that would send the students reminder emails at specified periods if they did not submit an evaluation.
When a university makes a decision about student evaluations, these issues must be carefully considered. The university’s attitude and approach toward the use of such instruments for faculty assessment may need to be re-evaluated and revised. Creating a climate in which students understand their responsibility in the process is important. Whether this is done through active and successful marketing or through a variety of incentives, universities have to realize that, if they want to use online evaluations, they cannot assume the transition will be successful without some background work and effort on the part of all the stakeholders, administrators, staff, faculty, and students.
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