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Profs able to opt out of having USRIs shared with deans and department heads

By Kristy Koehler, January 13 2021—

The Universal Student Ratings of Instruction (USRIs) that are advertised to students as a way to evaluate courses and professors might not have been the useful tool they purported to be last semester.

At last as early as the 2020 spring and summer intersessions, professors and instructors were given the option to opt-out of having the results of the USRIs released to department heads, associate deans or deans.

An Academic Staff FAQ posted on the University of Calgary’s website, provides the following information:

“Student feedback through the Universal Student Ratings of Instruction (USRI) will be collected for spring/summer and fall courses and will only be released to course instructors. Feedback will not be released to department heads, associate deans or deans unless you, as the course instructor, provide prior approval. This is included in our agreement with the Faculty Association. Academic staff are still free to use and share their student feedback at their discretion, such as in a teaching dossier.”

According to information in their September 2020 Academic Views newsletter, the Faculty Association of the University of Calgary (TUCFA) “argues that given the intrinsically discriminatory nature of student ratings, any decisions related to tenure, promotion, and salary increases (merit pay) that have been partly based on these ratings, has been affected by this intrinsic discrimination and has resulted in irreparable harm to those affected.”

A review of older editions of the newsletter indicate that, in June of 2019, TUCFA filed “a grievance against the use of the Universal Student Rating Instrument (USRI) as a summative assessment tool and the administration’s use of it as evidence of teaching effectiveness in hiring, tenure, promotion, and merit processes.” 

The grievance was denied by the Provost and TUCFA’s Board of Directors voted to proceed to arbitration, scheduled for Jan. 25-29 and Feb. 26, 2021.

The December 2019 Academic Views newsletter lays out TUCFA’s position on USRIs, notably that they do not measure the teaching effectiveness of an instructor and that “student responses are subject to race, gender, age, and other prohibited grounds of discrimination, as well as other biases not stated in the Alberta Human Rights Act.”

The newsletter calls the USRI a “deepy flawed instrument” and says it “produces data that is inherently biased and if used to assess an instructor’s teaching effectiveness constitutes a breach of the instructor’s rights under the Alberta Human Rights Act and the protections against discrimination in the Collective Agreement.”

TUCFA also maintains the position that “the use of the USRI by the administration provides student users with an anonymous opportunity to harass instructors.”

The Students’ Union says they did not know this change had happened.

“With online learning, especially this past semester, we encouraged students to fill out the survey,” said Semhar Abraha, vice-president academic of the Students’ Union. “My main concern is that if there were issues with online learning, we wanted it to be seen and fixed. It’s a very complicated situation.”

Abraha says the Students’ Union is collecting data regarding student issues in particular classes and is forwarding this to the faculties directly in order to improve online learning for the upcoming winter semester. 

“Having USRIs was a safe space for students to report on and provide feedback confidentially without worrying they’d be penalized,” she said. “It was a space for students to report their learning experience with instructors, department heads, associate deans or deans.”

Releasing USRI data to instructors only might limit the purpose of the USRI, Abraha noted, and negative feedback might not be shared with others who can help to resolve problems.

Being part of the university’s USRI Working Group, Abraha noted that no mention was made of the change.

“We were asked to encourage students to complete the survey,” she said. “This is very disappointing to see that things were changed without consultation.”

Abraha acknowledged that it was impacting the mental health of instructors to have students make inappropriate racist or sexist comments about them in the surveys among many other issues, and that this is never acceptable, but that a balance needs to be struck. Abraha believes that if technical issues with the current USRI are fixed, then the feedback received will be more constructive. 

“What I have been advocating for so far is to find a balance where instructors’ concerns are heard but that students’ feedback is also seen as valuable to the process of improving teaching and learning,” she said.

TUCFA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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