Perhaps the most dramatic result of the switch from teaching evaluations done on paper forms distributed in class to online forms accessible during a particular period of time at the end of an academic term has been the significant decline in student participation in the evaluations.
Some institutions/units/departments don't use online forms for this very reason, although online forms are certainly logistically preferable both during and after the evaluation process.
Using online forms in many cases reduces completion of the evaluations from > 80% (in-class forms) to < 40% (online forms).
I suppose you could argue that if students don't want to provide input, they shouldn't have to, but the concern is that teaching evaluations will lose what (debatable) value they have if < 40% of a class is providing comments. As long as teaching evaluations are used by administrators to judge teaching ability, the consequences for the instructor -- especially assistant professors and adjuncts -- can be dire if only those students who are unhappy are motivated to fill out the online forms (analogous to what happens to some professors on ratemyprofessors.com and similar sites).
From what I've seen, if a course has an online evaluation and the instructor does nothing to remind or encourage the students to fill out the online form, the participation is typically exceedingly low (<< 40%), even if there are reminders sent by whatever administrative office oversees the evaluation process.
There are things an instructor can do to increase participation, listed here in order of increasing evaluation completion rates (in my personal experience), from top to bottom of the list:
- make some announcements in class;
- make some announcements in class and send reminder e-mails;
- make some announcements in class, send reminder e-mails, and talk in class about why the evaluations are important (even for a senior professor) and why you care about getting their input -- you can even provide some examples of specific topics on which you would like input;
and the most effective method of the list:
- bribes and rewards.
Bribes work, but there are issues.
Some professors give extra credit if students do the online evaluations. According to some students I've talked to, some professors even say (or imply) that they can see which students fill out the evaluations and which do not, and promise extra credit only to those who complete the evaluations. In fact, correct me if I am wrong, but professors can't actually see individual names of who has and who has not filled out evaluations; we can see the number of completed evaluations and/or the % completion rate.
I think targeted bribes are unethical (i.e., saying that an individual student will get extra credit), but what about group bribes? Is it wrong to tell the entire class that they will all get a bit of extra credit if more than a certain (high) % of the class does the evaluations? Of course, giving the entire class extra credit is meaningless in some grading schemes, but let's ignore that for now and just consider whether the lure of extra credit for all is a good (and appropriate) way to encourage participation in teaching evaluations.
Pro: It takes time to fill out the evaluations, particularly if there are multiple instructors and TAs for each class. It's not a lot of time, but it's still a lot of clicking around to boring forms. Extra credit rewards a student's time and effort in an activity that the institution has deemed important. In this context, the extra credit is an incentive or a reward, not a bribe.
Con: Filling out an evaluation form isn't part of the academic work of the course, so extra credit for this activity isn't appropriate, even if it isn't a lot of extra credit. In general, it's not a good idea to bribe students to give their objective, thoughtful opinion about a course and its instructor.
Perhaps the best method is to offer a reward of some sort, but separate it from academic credit; e.g., the offering of prizes by some institutions (not instructors) to randomly selected students who complete evaluation forms. In the instructor-based scheme, every student in the class gets something (extra credit) if the target participation % is reached, whereas in the institution-based scheme, only some students get a reward. I don't think that is too discouraging to students, though -- low odds don't seem to discourage people from buying lottery tickets, for example.
If you use online evaluation forms, how do you (or your institution) encourage students to complete them?
10 months ago