USF may add questions to teacher evaluations

A university committee says adding questions to teacher evaluations that students complete at the end of each semester could affect how much students pay for textbooks.

The Textbook Affordability Committee (TAC), which aims to make textbooks affordable for students, wants two questions added to teacher evaluations.

They would questions whether professors discussed why the textbook was chosen and how it benefits the learning process, and to what extent the textbook was used in the class.

Adding the questions will give students the opportunity to voice concerns about textbook usage and affordability, said Tapas Das, associate provost for Policy Analysis, Planning and Performance. He said students often don’t use their textbooks.

One concern is when students are required to purchase a package of multiple textbooks and end up only using one for a class, Das said.

“Just as a textbook bundle may be very useful, it could be a big (financial) burden for students,” he said.

Teachers sometimes inform students on the first day of classes that they will not use a textbook, but students often buy books before the semester starts, Das said.

Textbook requirements for classes are available to students 30 days prior to the first day of classes.

Sherman Dorn, president of the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said as a professor, he would want to know students’ feedback on this topic.

“If I had choices about the questions my students answered on surveys for my course, I would certainly want to ask about how much did you use the reading materials, what was the most valuable material for the course,” Dorn said.

But Dorn said without knowledge of specifics on how the questions would be worded, he is unsure whether that would be the best thing to put on the survey for students.

That’s largely because there will be courses that don’t have textbooks, he said – in classes that are performance-based, for example.

“Was the faculty member able to provide individual mentoring and coaching on your performance?” Dorn said. “That would be an absolutely appropriate question.”

However, this change is not meant to intrude on faculty’s selection of books or teaching methods, Das said. Instead, teachers need to recognize the cost of textbooks.

“We are fully aware of the burden textbooks impose on students … We are very aware of the indebtedness at the time of graduation,” he said. “Success is not how well you do here. Success is in how well you do after.”

Since tuition costs have increased, decreasing costs elsewhere for students is pertinent, said TAC co-chair Anete Vasquez.

“Knowing that these questions are on the evaluation will be an impetus for faculty to put careful consideration into the cost and use of textbooks,” Vasquez said in an e-mail.

Professors have the academic freedom to bring in outside materials as necessary, Das said, and those materials may be used extensively while only one or two chapters from a textbook are referenced.

“A student in that section may ask at the end of the semester, ‘Why did I buy that book?'” he said.

Larry Branch, professor in the Florida Mental Health Institute, College of Public Health and College of Medicine, said the textbook-related questions are “absolutely essential” to the evaluations.

Branch, who is the president of the Faculty Senate, said he hasn’t received any complaints from faculty regarding this issue.

“If faculty members in some instances have been requiring students to get textbooks that were subsequently not used in the courses, that’s a great imposition on students and it means the faculty member hasn’t really done an appropriate job in preparing for the course,” Branch said.

But attaching the questions to a faculty evaluation is not the “best idea,” said Rebecca Hagen, a mass communications professor.

“(The evaluations) play heavily in tenure promotion,” Hagen said. “It gets looked at very seriously.”

Hagen said the questions are a good idea in that they would provide feedback to professors, but they shouldn’t be at the expense of a teacher’s evaluation.

USF is looking into another alternative to lowering the cost of textbooks: free electronic books.

“Traditional textbooks are no longer the only game in town so we need to explore other options,” Vasquez said.

The Orange Grove Committee (OGC), a board of governors who work with University press, built an online repository that provides free online textbooks to professors, he said.

OGC met with professors last month to teach them how to use the repository and how to contribute books to the online resource, Das said.

The committee plans to connect with repositories across the country so that professors will have access to free materials for class, he said.

Das said his plans are to give students access to the repository through Blackboard.

If approved, the textbook-related questions would be added to the evaluations in fall 2010, he said.