OMETS give students voices for improvement

Terry Tan, Senior Staff Illustrator

I’ve had a sticky note on my desktop all semester where I jot down little thoughts about my classes and professors — notes about covering material too fast or taking too long to hand back grades. To an outside observer, it may seem trivial or even bizarre, but to me, it’s helpful preparation for the last few weeks of the semester.

When the air turns colder and it’s time to break out my myriad of fuzzy hats, I know these comments will come in handy. While other students may ignore email after email, I rarely wait until after the first one to respond to the Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching’s survey request, perhaps more affectionately known around campus as the OMETS.

I, obviously, take OMET surveys very seriously. It’s weird, I know, and probably a bit of overkill. But it’s inherently more beneficial for the entire university community than just deleting those emails and ignoring the surveys. You don’t have to go to my borderline-obsessive lengths to complete your surveys, but you should be completing them and doing them thoroughly all the same.  

Most students who do submit their OMETS do so for a variety of reasons — to air grievances, express praise or share constructive criticism for instructors.

The survey’s task isn’t too ambitious or complicated. The main goal of them, according to the Director of the Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching Nancy Reilly, is to supply instructors with information on how students are receiving their courses.

“If they are not given feedback, [instructors] may be unaware of the thoughts and concerns of some students,” said Reilly.

Even if it seems like your concerns or thoughts about a class might only be a drop in the bucket, when combined with the opinions of other students, those drops can accumulate into real change. OMETS are most effective when the large majority of students fill them out, but the number of surveys completed have been decreasing over the years.  

Reilly said that currently, the average response rates for the surveys is between 54 and 59 percent. In a standard 1000-level lecture course made up of 40 students, only 22 or 23 kids will complete their OMETS and get their voices heard. So by doing your own survey and adding even one more responses, statistically you can change the outcome of the surveys significantly. This rate, though, is too low to make the difference we want to see happen.

But there may be a way to explain why it’s so low. Pitt began allowing professors the option of choosing between paper or online OMET forms in the fall of 2012. In its first semester, of the teachers who chose the online forms, only half of their students completed them. But Pitt went on to upgrade the surveys to only digital forms by the fall of 2013, and the response rates have remained low.

Professor and Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences Jeffrey Lawrence agreed that the response rates in his classes and the department were much higher when they were taken in-class.

“The online system is more convenient and does not consume class time, but we sacrifice response rate,” said Lawrence.

It makes sense — online evaluations save time, paper and probably a lot of hassle. There’s no need to administer them in the procter-like fashion of the olden days or sift through sheet after sheet to compile the data. Now, at most, some professors give five to ten minutes at the end of class for students to fill them out on their laptops. This means students are often free to do something else online during this time or even just leave, claiming they’ve already done the surveys.

I don’t spend an embarrassingly long time on mine critiquing professors because I think I’m the epitome of knowledge about how to make their course or teaching style better. I do it because it makes me feel better and like I’m contributing something helpful to the class, especially when I’ve sat shoulder-hunched and frustrated through a class that could use some updating all semester.

It’s happened more than once in a class where I’ve commented on the rigidity of the reading lists. I’m a history major, and it’s common to read multiple books over the course of semester, oftentimes with authors who are of only one breed: old, white, male and liberal. I made the observation that perhaps the class could benefit from more diverse views and readings of history, one that represents a more accurate depiction of the demographics of the average class — a thought that may not have occurred to a professor if it hadn’t been pointed out.

Filling out my OMETS makes me feel like I’m being heard. Because I’m a skeptic by nature, I’m not always convinced that anyone reads them, but the sentiment is nice all the same. Professor Lawrence would disagree with my skepticism, adding a bit of motivation for doing the OMETS.

“While students may have a stereotypical impression that professors simply don’t care about what students think, this is not true. If students are not learning and struggle with the course for reasons beyond those planned…then this nullifies the efforts we have made,” said Lawrence.

As for those being surveyed, OMETS provide something different for each instructor. For tenured or tenure-track faculty, the surveys are more of an opportunity to get feedback on their teaching style or to see how students feel about new implementations to a course. For some professors, they can also be influential in advancing their careers.

“Teaching evaluations are taken very seriously in evaluating my performance and have played a significant role in promotion decisions,” said Lisa Nelson, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “I’m not sure if students understand how much power they wield.”

Student evaluations of teachers shouldn’t be the end-all be-all of deciding teacher effectiveness, but it is important that this feedback is given its due weight in consideration by all parties involved. When used properly, OMETS are useful for inspiring change in the classroom and illustrating the potential for an instructor to become a career professor. None of those things should be taken lightly.

We can all be doing a better job. So take a minute to take your OMETS more seriously.

Amber primarily writes about gender and politics for The Pitt News.

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