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Credit: Mona Lee

Nearly 90 percent of University of Pennsylvania students fill out course evaluations to express their frustration or gratitude toward professors at the end of the semester. While Penn Course Review obtains the data and makes it public to Penn students, student evaluations can also directly impact faculty members. 

The University, department administrators, deans, and the Provost use course evaluations to evaluate faculty, which can affect tenure and contract renewals.

Students are required to either fill out the evaluations or choose to opt out to view their final grades. After students complete the evaluations, a software system organizes and pushes the information to a data warehouse. From there, university officials can access the feedback, said Rob Nelson, executive director for Education and Academic Planning.

Bruce Lenthall, executive director of Penn's Center for Teaching and Learning, leads the center that advises professors on how to improve after receiving poor evaluations. When professors receive multiple subpar reviews, the next course of action depends on the department and instructor’s position, Lenthall said.

Course evaluations can also affect faculty members, such as assistant professors, who are hired onto the tenure track to receive a permanent position. 

“In deciding whether to give someone tenure, the University has to weigh their teaching,” Lenthall said.

Poor course evaluations signal to the department that the instructor should be placed into another course, or the instructor’s standing in the tenure process should be reevaluated.

“Someone who is on the tenure track is not going to get fired tomorrow, but if their teaching is not at a sufficient high quality, they may not get tenure,” Lenthall said.

For non-tenured track faculty, such as lecturers, Lenthall said course evaluations are also considered for contract renewals.

“Evaluations are not the be-all and end-all, but it is something the department administrator is looking at,” Lenthall said.

When tenured professors receive multiple poor evaluations, Nelson said it is on department leaders to initiate discussion with them. He added that it is common for professors to get advising from the Penn Center for Teaching and Learning to improve their teaching.

However, if a professor receives exceptional feedback, Lenthall said the evaluations do not lead to an automatic bonus. Nevertheless, committees that review teaching awards, such as the Lindback Award, do consider positive evaluations.

“The evaluations become a trigger for the department to think maybe this is someone we want to nominate for a teaching award and find out more about their teaching,” Lenthall said.

Jane Xu is one of three head TA for CIS 120. (Photo from Jane Xu)

For student teaching assistants, course evaluations have little to no impact on their positions, said Engineering junior Jane Xu, who is one of the three head TAs for CIS 120. Xu said her TA staff does not have access to other TA evaluations.

“The course feedback isn’t taken into consideration,” Xu said. “It’s more for personal introspection.”

However, Xu said she has reservations about the current evaluation format. 

“Course evaluations are so vague, because they don’t ask many specific targeted questions,” Xu said, citing the lack of specificity of the “Overall TA comment” section.

Engineering senior Wenting Sun also said she found herself writing less in recent semesters.

“The first couple years, I filled evaluations out pretty meticulously,” Sun said. “Now for the professors I feel like were fine, I think the rating is sufficient.”

“One of the ways to encourage students to answer these freeform questions is to make clear how that information is used,” Nelson said. He added that he would like to create a system that allows students to fill out different responses for each question in two separate free response sections — one section that would be feedback for faculty members, while the other section would be feedback just for other students to see.

While the idea has not been officially proposed, Nelson hopes it will become part of the Next Generation Student Systems Project that is working to replace Penn InTouch in the next three to four years. Nelson’s main goal is to incorporate course evaluation data into the new registration system.

“The part I am most excited [about] is the way that the Penn InTouch systems that students use when registering for classes are going to be revamped and made better,” Nelson said. “Putting course evaluations at students’ fingertips when they are making those decisions is a really big part of that.”