Any student trying to select their courses knows that it’s no easy task. People often seek out resources or reviews of potential classes, using advice from older students or online reviews to help them make their choices.
But as it turns out, students should have had access to an even larger amount of course information all along.
A McMaster University policy put in place in May 1997 stipulated that the course evaluations from each faculty should be made public—both for students and for faculty members, with the intention of “providing students with information that may help them choose their courses.”
And yet, 16 years after the policy was put in place, students don’t seem to have access to these evaluations.
Martin Dooley, a professor of Economics and Chair of the Joint Committee of the McMaster University Faculty Association and the University Administration explained that the policy hasn’t been followed for years.
“We have a whole policy that’s been broken down in many, many ways,” he said.
Dooley, as Chair of the committee, brought the years-old policy to the attention of university administrators and faculty after discovering of his own accord that it wasn’t being followed.
“I called the library to see about [the availability of a paper copy] on my own initiative,” he explained. “They told me they hadn’t kept this for at least five years, so clearly something was wrong.”
The original version of the policy required that results of from each course evaluation, as well as the course statistics, be available to students in print through the University Library and the MSU, as well as online.
Though the goal would be to have results of evaluations public, the system currently operates through an opt-in policy, in which each professor must give their approval before details are released. The responsibility for this is put on each Department Chair.
Dooley explained that although he had filled out the form indicating his consent, the evaluations of his classes were not available.
He was inspired to take a revised version of the policy to the attention of the Joint Committee, and then to the Senate, where it will be discussed in the coming weeks.
Helen Ayre, Acting University Secretary, said that the proposed changes reflect a shift in how the course evaluations are done.
While in 1997 all evaluations were done on paper, most faculties have since converted to an online survey system.
As well as involving the University Secretariat, the 1997 policy also implicated the MSU and the University Library; both bodies are supposed to be compiling the evaluations.
MSU VP Education Huzaifa Saeed explained that the union has not been involved in this process in the past few years.
“One of the problems we have in the MSU is obviously turnover,” Saeed said. “If we have policies that aren’t MSU policy, [they] get lost in the shuffle. We have no way of knowing if we should follow [them] unless our predecessors tell us.”
MSU President Siobhan Stewart noted her surprise at finding out about the policy, adding that “it’s not even in the conscious memory of [the MSU].”
Neither Stewart or Saeed could account for the lack of involvement of the MSU. although, they speculated that the practice of publishing evaluations could have been lost with the transition of duties from President to VP Education after the introduction of the VP Ed position 11 years ago.
It is unclear at what point the policy stopped being followed, although Dooley asserts that the policy “gradually fell into disarray,” most likely because no single governing body was named to oversee the process.
The McMaster University Library, also involved in the original process of disseminating evaluations, had not been following the practice for years.
“Historically it was rather spotty,” said Acting University Librarian Vivian Lewis of the system, adding that the use of online evaluations made the Library’s role in the process irrelevant.
While the responsibility originally rested with the MSU and the Library to distribute results, if the revised policy is approved, it will fall to the Department Chairs to ensure that the information is accessible online.
The new version the policy is not perfect, however; Dooley acknowledges that there is a lot up for discussion in the coming Senate meeting.
A major concern so far has been how widely to distribute the material.
While he recognized that students need access to the results and that “more transparency is better,” Dooley explained that professors are concerned about data being misinterpreted by the general public.
As well, with the shift to online evaluations, the feedback rate has dropped and roughly only 20 per cent or less of students respond.
Dooley acknowledged that this poses some problems for determining how reflective responses are of entire classes. But despite these concerns, it seems that students can expect easier access to course evaluations in the foreseeable future.