Editor, the Gauntlet,
The current Universal Student Ratings of Instruction process should be shelved because the methodology is unsound.
The fundamental flaw of the current system is that it is voluntary. Students are asked to submit several course assessments online at the most congested time of the academic year: at the end of term, when course projects are due and when exams loom or are already in progress in lab-based courses. Where does--or should--this fit on their list of priorities?
The assessments that are received therefore come from those students who have the goodwill, time or inclination. None is ideal from the point of view of representativity, the latter being particularly problematic, whether for positive or negative reasons.
Informal discussion with colleagues invariably reveals a significant drop in participation rates compared to when the course evaluations were administered in class. Evidence that this is a university-wide phenomenon is the appearance this year of a cash- based incentive scheme to get more students to respond.
Administering the course evaluations in class is not a perfect solution--usually there is not full attendance, it takes up class time and it adds work for already-busy administrative personnel. But it is the best out of a range of alternatives because it surveys almost everyone, at one time, in one place and involves no additional investment in time for the students because they are in class anyway. There is no doubt that it provides a more representative--and therefore valid--assessment than the current voluntary system.
USRI results are important. They are one of the primary measures of the teaching performance of professors and are one of the key assessment criteria for salary, promotion and tenure. They are also used by students to assess course offerings.
Therefore, they should be done right, or not at all.