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DOCUMENTS OF THE GENERAL FACULTY

FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE AD HOC COMMITTEE TO STUDY COURSE INSTRUCTOR SURVEYS (CIS)

Professor Marvin L. Hackert (chemistry and biochemistry and committee chair) submitted the following report on behalf of the ad hoc Committee to Study Course Instructor Surveys.

The secretary has classified this report as general legislation. The Faculty Council approved the recommendations as amended at its meeting on November 21, 2005.


Sue Alexander Greninger, Secretary
The Faculty Council


The report from the committee was distributed through the Faculty Council web site on November 18, 2005 in portable document format and subsequently numbered on November 30, 2005. Copies are available on request from the Office of the General Faculty, WMB 2.102, F9500.


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FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE AD HOC COMMITTEE TO STUDY COURSE INSTRUCTOR SURVEYS (CIS)

After extensive deliberations, The Ad hoc Committee of the Faculty Council to Study Course Instructor Surveys (CIS) recommends the following actions. These actions would retain the numerical evaluation data as the official University evaluation but reinstate “ownership” of student written comments to the faculty member as was the case when the CIS was adopted in November, 1990. Voluntary compliance for sharing written comments with the administration will reside with the faculty member. In making these motions, the committee is returning the faculty to their previous practices of administrating Course Instructor Surveys. Adapting these motions should also eliminate the additional expenses and access problems associated with recent administrative decisions related to the ownership of those written comments. Additional background on the committee’s deliberations and the current environment for CIS decision-making are presented below the motions. We move that:

Motion 1: The official University CIS will consist of only objective questions.

Implications: Student written comments will not be a part of the official University CIS. Thus, the University will discontinue the collection of student written comments as part of the official course-instructor survey starting with the Fall 2005 semester, or as soon thereafter as is feasible. 

Motion 2: [Unofficial s]Student written comments will be elicited via procedures that make them [“for faculty-only use for improved teaching,”] not subject[ing them] to potential problems associated with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).1

Implications: The University General Counsel will need to work out the best process for achieving Motion 2. Our motion addresses the goal of retaining the faculty’s ability to receive student comments in order to improve their classroom instruction. Subject to the agreement of the University General Counsel, it is our recommendation that: Student written comments will be solicited with a notice that the comments may be subject to the protections of FERPA and that by writing the comment they thereby agree to waive any rights they may have under FERPA and with the understanding that the comment becomes the property of the faculty member to whom it is addressed.  After acknowledging that they have waived any such rights, the anonymous, written comments by students would be delivered to MEC without having been viewed or copied by any other person. MEC administrators will destroy, without reviewing comments written by students, all forms that do not acknowledge waiver of any such rights, note for audit purposes the number of such FERPA waived documents, and deliver, again without having been viewed or copied by any other person, the remaining documents solely to the addressed faculty member to facilitate the private communication of the student.  We believe that this separate treatment of the objective portion and the written comments would have the effect of rendering the Open Records and Records Retention Acts inapplicable to these written comments and that the waiver would be effective as to the claimed applicability of FERPA.

Motion 3: When a faculty member submits student comments (with the FERPA waiver) from a class (or classes) for purposes of promotion, etc., the faculty member must submit all written comments received from that class - not just selected ones, recognizing that in doing so the documents will then become official records and may be subject to open records act.

Implications: If a faculty member formally submits for administrative purposes (e.g., merit review file, promotion or tenure review, etc.) any copy or original of unofficial, FERPA-waived, student written comments gathered in connection with a CIS administration of objective questions, then all students’ written comments from that same course must be submitted and they become official University records, potentially subjecting them to the open records act and any other statutory requirements for public records.


1 Friendly amendment approved by the Faculty Council on November 21, 2005.


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Motion 4: The University must inform faculty in writing of their rights and obligations with respect to CIS evaluations, including the storage, handling, and retention of past and future student written comments relating to FERPA law, the open records act, records retention regulations, and any other applicable legal requirements, and the University should continue to explore alternative means of soliciting student input, and educate faculty about alternative CIS evaluation tools available now and in the future.

Implications: The University needs to continue to address modern methods of collecting CIS evaluations. They need to inform and educate all faculty on methods that are already available and additional tools being developed to solicit student input on teaching by other means, e.g., such as a class activity, on-line tools such as Blackboard, or OCA (Ongoing Course Assessment), etc. The goal is to maintain a knowledgeable faculty who has reasonable access to student feedback and to keep faculty apprised of their legal rights and obligations at a University level.
Background and Insights Into the Committee Deliberations

The Faculty Senate approved mandatory CIS in November 1990. It was later recommended that all courses be surveyed for three purposes: 1) to inform students for course selection, 2) to inform faculty and administrators for purposes of promotion and curriculum decisions, and 3) to assist faculty to improve their teaching. At the core of these recommendations was the concern and intent that students, teachers, and administrators all benefit from processes that are informative, efficient, and fair. At the time the opinion was expressed that “Written comments on student evaluation forms are not governed by the Open Records Act that governs access and release of answers to the survey items. This communication is offered and received as a private act of communication between student and faculty. The committee recommends that the privacy of both the students and faculty be respected and preserved and in so doing it becomes the purview of the faculty member as to how and when these are released.” This legislation was approved and implemented in Fall 2000. In the Spring of 2005, the Chair of the Faculty Council, Linda Reichl, appointed an Ad hoc Committee to review the status of the CIS relative to recent legal interpretations as to their use on the UT-Austin campus and report back to the Faculty Council with recommendations for changes needed, if any.

The Ad Hoc Committee agrees that the Course Instructor Surveys serve three distinct purposes: 1) to inform students for course selection, 2) to inform faculty and administrators for purposes of promotion and curriculum decisions, and 3) to assist faculty to improve their teaching. We believe that the first two purposes can be adequately met with the availability of the summative (numerical) data alone (although the survey instrument itself could be improved to include such items as effective use of information technology, etc.).

We also believe that student written comments are valuable to both the student and the instructor and can provide valuable specific suggestions and feedback for improving instruction, but it is a dangerous practice to attach too much significance to any individual, anonymous student written comment.

However, recent legal interpretations of how course-instructor survey student written comments are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) law continue to raise concerns about current and past UT policy on the handling of such materials. Furthermore in connection with future on-line surveys, some legal interpretations state that even typewritten student comments are FERPA protected in that they may contain stylistic features or references to specific facts that still make them identifiable. The proposed waiver for the written comments avoids this potential problem while maintaining access by the faculty to this qualitative information for improving teaching.

Moreover, these recent legal opinions responding to the FERPA concerns have brought about changes in the usage, treatment, defined ownership and storage of CIS materials on the UT-Austin campus, and these changes have resulted in confusion, inconsistent practices across campus, added workload to departmental staff for the storage of the paper copies or scanning of such documents, increased costs and economic burden on the university, and in some cases reduced access by faculty to valuable information for improving their teaching. Returning to our previous practice by returning “FERPA waived documents” to the faculty but retaining the numerical data in electronic form as the official evaluation information should greatly reduce copying and storage costs while maintaining the benefit to the faculty of the written comments.


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In situations when a department chair, promotion committee, other administrative official or unit deems it necessary to access the written comments, rarely has a problem occurred in the past (when faculty held the written comments) that the faculty member did not voluntarily submit the student comments from a class (or classes) for purposes of promotion, etc.

The best results of student evaluations of teaching should also include better communication to the students of the roles and uses of these instruments.

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Respectfully submitted in revised form to the Faculty Council on November 21st, 2005 – The Ad hoc Committee to Review the Status of the CIS: Marvin Hackert (chair), Michael Granof,Michael Sharlot, Janet Staiger, and Marilla Svinicki with grateful acknowledgement to Chuck Gaede and Judy Ashcroft for their input.