Fresh out of high school and eager to start at Ryerson, Stephanie Sim never imagined one of her first university classes would be a disappointment.
Had she been a student at the University of Toronto or McGill University, things may have been different.
Unlike Ryerson, these schools disclose results of faculty course surveys, broken down by course or instructor, for students to see and use when choosing classes.
The situation at Ryerson frustrated Sim, who before enrolling had little way of knowing what awaited her.
The first-year business management student said one of her classes was taught by a “horrible” instructor who taught advanced material and was much more unorganized than instructors who taught different sections of the same class.
“He was adding things to exams that the other professors didn’t add … he also didn’t teach a lot of it,” Sim said of the instructor, whose class average was 52 per cent — 20 percentage points lower than that of other sections. “He would pile it on you, but wouldn’t actually show you how to do any of it.”
Ryerson’s course evaluation system, developed and implemented in 2007, is based on 14 questions that assess the fairness of assignments, the organization of courses and the effectiveness of instructors. The surveys — administered near the conclusion of each semester online or on paper — help the school collect data on the content and delivery of courses and the instructors’ performance.
Ryerson discloses the average score for each question by program and faculty on its website. The individualized results for instructors and courses, however, are hidden from students and are only open to instructors and the vice-provost of faculty, John Isbister.
According to Isbister, these scores are concealed because of faculty contracts.
“It’s a result of negotiations,” said Isbister. “It’s not a part of the collective agreement between the employer and the employees.”
But some, like Sim, say disclosing the results could have its benefits.
“I think if it was done really seriously to actually try to truly benefit the students then it would really help,” she said. “It would also provide incentive for professors to maybe put a little bit more effort into it because they know that they are being checked on.”
Isbister, however, counters that there’s a “danger” in assessing any teacher solely based on their course survey results.
“You could have a professor that people really don’t like and the reason why people really don’t like him is because he or she forces them to do work that’s incredibly important, but they might not like it,” he said.
Though he warns about its unreliability, Isbister says, for students interested in an instructor’s track record, there is always RateMyProfessor.com.
The website lets students rate professors on easiness, clarity, helpfulness and even hotness while providing comments about their experiences.
According to McGill University learning and teaching consultant, Effi Kaoukis, the frivolity of RateMyProfessor.com was one reason why the Montreal school moved towards disclosing the results of course surveys.
Numerical survey results are made available through a learning portal to students and staff, depending on whether an instructor gives consent to their disclosure.
This year, Kaoukis says, about 1,500 instructors granted consent and about 600 refused.
Before results are posted, the school ensures that at least 25 to 40 per cent of the class has participated in the survey, so that the results are not distorted by low participation rates.
“If a student is registering for courses they can go to the (university’s) site and they can search for their course and their prof and see what has happened in the past,” she said, touting the benefits of transparency.
McGill isn’t the only school to jump on the disclosure bandwagon. Two years ago, the University of Toronto unveiled a series of sweeping changes to its course evaluation survey system.
It moved the process entirely, online and, like McGill, discloses results unless individual professors object. But Ryerson Students’ Union vice-president education, Roshelle Lawrence, questions the effects of disclosure.
“It kind of gets scary if you focus in on this particular class or this particular prof who has a high score or a low score,” Lawrence said. “It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it can become problematic.”
Despite the differing opinions, Kaoukis says the bottom line is that universities get the feedback from course surveys that they need to enhance education.
“We find them really valuable because they express their concerns or they give us great suggestions,” she said. “It’s a system that can really benefit the school community.”
But things could change when the collective full-time faculty agreement ends in June 2015.
“It takes both parties to agree to it,” president Sheldon Levy said. “We would be supportive of it, if (the faculty) would be supportive of it.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 19, 2014.