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University of Copenhagen
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»A useless ritual«? This is why instructors and students have to hand in evaluations

Teaching — The University of Copenhagen spends both time and payroll on evaluating the quality of teaching in their courses. But why actually? And what are they used for? Here is an overview.

If you are a student at a Danish university, you know what we are talking about: Maybe the semester is almost over, and your thoughts are circling around the upcoming exams. Suddenly one, two, three questionnaires pop up in your inbox.

You have to evaluate all the courses you just did. And if you don’t respond, you can look forward to a stream of reminders.

Professor at the Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports Reinhard Stelter calls the whole process »a useless ritual«. But why does the university use resources on teaching evaluations? How are they set up, and what are they used for?

Why are course evaluations done?

For Danish universities, it is a legal requirement to publish their evaluation results. If they do not live up to transparency requirements, they may be reported to the Danish Agency for Higher Education and Science. The agency does not, however, supervise the universities’ evaluation work on an ongoing basis.

In addition to this, universities have to measure the quality of their teaching in order to obtain accreditation from the Danish Accreditation Institution.

But how this is done in practice is up to the university itself. It is, specifically, the study programme management teams and the boards of studies at the different individual faculties that plan, conduct and supervise the work.

The purpose is, according to the University of Copenhagen’s guidelines, »to improve the teaching,« and »to ensure a good framework for students’ learning and their completion of studies«. At the same time, the idea is that »the evaluation process contributes to the instructors’ commitment to the development of teaching activities, and that it contributes to sharing experiences from the classrooms«.

The evaluations should therefore be seen as a help to both students and instructors, and ultimately should lead to a better teaching experience for both.

How are course evaluations done?

The evaluation of the teaching can take on the format of a balancing of expectations, interim evaluations and final evaluations. While the first two formats should ideally help improve the teaching during the course, the latter format is a final assessment and is the one that is used as a final evaluation of the courses.

In practical terms, the final evaluations consist of questionnaires, which are set up internally at the different faculties and sent to students via email. This is done in-house by an administrative employee, for example, or by student assistants of a study programme’s management. The individual departments may decide for themselves where the emphasis should be in the questionnaire, and what the process is.

The responses are used to prepare an annual evaluation report, which, according to the University of Copenhagen’s guidelines, is published on the faculties’ website. It is here that the instructors, rather than the students, get graded.

The top grade A is given to courses that »function particularly well, and that can serve as an inspiration to others«. At the other end of the scale is the grade C, given if there is »a need for more adjustments«.

How the grades are awarded is up to the individual faculties. It can be done based on a qualitative assessment, or quantitatively based on the number of evaluations and their assessments.

... and then what?

So how do all these reports affect the quality of the teaching? This may well seem a bit unclear to those outside the loop – including the students. There are typically no requirements for communicating the results back to the students who have just evaluated their courses.

In the evaluation reports, there should be a comment on the results and, in particular, how the evaluation will be followed up on the C graded courses.

But what this follow-up consists of is something that typically ends up staying between the department and study programme management and the instructor.

The evaluations are also used by the boards of studies when they have to approve curricula for the new semesters.

Why am I reading about this now?

The University of Copenhagen spends both time and money every year on salaries for employees who are responsible for the evaluation work. But many teachers can’t see the purpose of the final evaluations, according to sports professor Reinhard Stelter, who calls them »a useless ritual«. There are indications that the students feel the same way – the response rates are generally very low.

»No-one in the system really appreciates the evaluations. But our hands are totally tied. Because everyone just toes the line in accordance with the rules that come from the top,« says Reinhard Stelter.

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