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New TCE proposal gains support

Teresa Fralish | Friday, November 19, 2004

One semester after faculty and students clashed over publication of teacher course evaluations and ultimately failed to rectify their differences, the two groups appear to be back on track – due to a new course evaluation proposal that promises to satisfy both sides.

The new plan, proposed by associate provost Dennis Jacobs this fall, calls for the University to create a reporting mechanism, entirely apart from the TCEs, for students to provide other students with information and assessment of classes.

“The TCEs by themselves do not adequately capture teaching. … If the measures we have are unreliable, then we can’t make advances in any real way,” Jacobs said.

Student government’s previous proposal to publish the actual data compiled from the TCEs recognized that need, but ran into trouble when faculty – concerned about publicizing information used for sensitive decisions on tenure and promotion – voted it down last spring.

Throughout this semester, Jacobs and student leaders exchanged dialogue on the topic, and the provost’s office eventually developed a revamped plan that Jacobs presented at the November Faculty Senate meeting.

Students, faculty and administrators have long said they agreed on the concept of publishing student feedback about classes – but diverged on how to go about it.

Rethinking undergraduate education

When Jacobs, 2001 U.S. Teacher of the Year, came to the provost’s office in August, he brought a strong background in teaching excellence and intended to critically examine undergraduate education at Notre Dame.

His proposal calls for new course evaluations as just one part of a strategy that aims to provide students with accessible, standardized information about course descriptions, reading materials and learning objectives.

“The larger question is how can we help inform the process by which students select courses,” Jacobs said.

At the November Faculty Senate meeting, Jacobs presented the course information initiative as well as a plan to reform teaching evaluation in the tenure process.

As it stands currently, the student review plan will likely rectify many of the concerns that led faculty to oppose TCE publication the past two years, especially the evaluations’ impact on tenure.

“[The TCE] is a very sensitive subject,” Jacobs said. “It’s treated with a high degree of confidentiality,” Jacobs said.

If approved, Jacobs said the mechanism would most likely include a set of questions separate from the TCE, drafted by a committee of faculty, students and the administration specifically designed to provide students with feedback about courses and instructors.

“Those [TCE] questions were written with a different purpose in mind,” he said. “Is there a set of questions that would better serve the needs of the students and for which students are well-qualified to answer?”

Students would complete the survey simultaneously with the regular TCE, but would receive clear instruction about the purpose and use of the separate questions. The data would likely be uploaded in an online format, with access restricted to students and the teacher of the course.

“The data that comes out of this new survey cannot be used for the purposes of tenure,” said Jacobs.

Succeeding in the long-term

When student leaders first broached the idea of TCE publication two years ago, they wanted simply to give students a tool to choose the right courses.

“It really boiled down to something that students needed. You were to some extent choosing classes in a vacuum,” said Trip Foley, 2002-03 student body vice president and an early proponent of TCE publication.

Foley and others researched the issue and proposed using the TCE to share course information because it was already in place.

“It seemed like a great way,” he said. “[But] given people’s feeling on the issue it’s understandable that it took two years.”

Ultimately, student government failed to succeed with this approach – but students like senior Jeremy Staley kept the idea alive since Foley’s first efforts two years ago.

“You find out the hard way – but you still fight for it,” said Staley, current student Academic Council representative and former Sorin Hall senator. “The faculty was very uncomfortable with [the publication] idea, but we also knew that students needed that information.”

In early October, Staley presented a course review proposal to Student Senate with Senate academic chair Vijay Ramanan. Staley and students leaders met with Jacobs, who welcomed their ideas into his proposal on course information.

“We have not had this much reception from the administration ever. Of course [Jacobs] is not taking sides – he’s just trying to facilitate,” Staley said.

Now, student leaders fully back Jacobs’ proposal and said they strongly believe faculty will approve it.”It was like night and day between this year and last year … The further along we get, the more clear will be the picture of what it’s going to look like,” Staley said.

Ramanan, who represents students at Faculty Senate, said he feels confident the current plan will address the major issues that drew criticism from the faculty previously.

“I think in the past maybe students have fallen into the trap of asking … for things that are good for students but aren’t necessarily good for the University,” he said.

At this point, Ramanan said students would work with the faculty to hammer out the student questions and the mechanism for analyzing and distributing the survey data.

“They were very receptive to the idea,” he said of the faculty. “I think most of the things they asked were nuts and bolts questions.”

Staley, Ramanan and last year’s student body president Jeremy Lao met with Faculty Senate leaders Thursday to discuss the project’s next step. Current president Adam Istvan said though he is not involved with the effort, he supports Ramanan and Staley’s efforts.

For their part, student leaders said this year marks the end of a long, but now successful, process for providing their peers with real information about courses.

“Very rarely do students get to see long-term projects proceed,” Staley said. “Nobody expected this two years ago – we’re very excited.”

Moving forward

Regardless of the strong student and administration support, the current proposal must ultimately win faculty approval – and faculty leaders say that appears more possible than ever.

John Robinson, last year’s Faculty Senate chair and current Faculty Affairs chair, said the current student review proposal resolves a key flaw in the old plan.

“The real purpose of TCEs is two-fold – to help the teacher become a better teacher … and the second is normative,” he said in reference TCE use in tenure and promotion. “The best thing to do is to separate those two sets of interests.”

According to Robinson, the new proposal promises to do just that.”All we’ve got to do now is fine-tune it,” he said. “I think Dennis [Jacobs] has hit upon the idea of a solution.”

In addition to the revamped proposal, faculty leaders also credited improved dialogue between students, the administration and themselves for this year’s difference.

“I think we’re embarking on much more of a dialogue between Faculty Senate and student government. … I think these more interactive discussions are going to be very helpful,” Faculty Senate chair Seth Brown said.

But both Robinson and Jacobs cautioned that students and faculty would need to resolve issues such as the survey questions themselves and exactly who would have access and how before the project takes physical form. In particular, technical aspects must be harmonized with the University’s computer network.

“Details are going to matter,” Brown said.

Students, faculty and Jacobs said the earliest the program might be ready would be for the Fall 2005 semester. But for now, a spirit of cooperation prevails.

“I’m very optimistic that something can be worked out,” Brown said.