Friday, November 16, 2012

Sending a message very different than the one we intend

Because I am a graduate student at the institution where I work, I receive an email each semester I am enrolled in courses (which at this point is every semester, because the sooner I finish my dissertation the sooner my wife can stop being an academic widow) inviting me to submit "student ratings" for the courses in which I am enrolled and the instructors who teach these courses.  Although I doubt the utility and value of the exercise, my sense of duty compels me to try to submit thoughtful ratings each semester.

I've completed this process at least twice a year for nearly the last 10 years; however, it wasn't until this morning when I was submitting my ratings for the current semester that I noticed this statement on the "Student Ratings Homepage:"

A message to students from President Samuelson

Student evaluations of BYU faculty and courses are extremely important.
  • Faculty are expected to consult them to improve their courses and teaching methods.
  • Department chairs are expected to review them annually with faculty to assess teaching effectiveness.
  • University committees consider them carefully as part of faculty reviews to determine who is retained and promoted.

Without your responsible input, we cannot effectively assess and improve teaching performance and student learning.  Please be honest, fair, and constructive as you complete your evaluations.
Your evaluations matter.
Thank you,
President Samuelson 
At first glance, posting a message like this on a webpage where students initiate the rating process makes sense.  An institution wants students to submit ratings, so someone on a committee suggests that a formal statement of support be made and displayed in a public place.  It is a very simple thing, doesn't require much time of anyone, and we can all feel good about being "supportive" of a particular initiative (in this case, student ratings).

However, one could offer a very different interpretation of the one above, which is the interpretation I made when I noticed the statement this morning.  A committee somewhere in the institution was charged with finding a way to increase student participation in the rating process, was told "these evaluations matter," doubted the truthfulness of that statement (the person who said it probably did too), a secretary somewhere drafted a statement, it was approved by the university president, and then "publicly" displayed but in a place and in a fashion that made it discrete enough that it wouldn't cause any problems or change any aspect of the cultural norms that prevail on campus with regard to teaching and learning (e.g. faculty can teach a course any way they want so long as they don't give inaccurate information, act abusively toward students, or teach anything that would make the Board of Trustees anxious).  The net result of the hypothetical process I've described above is that a very different message than the one originally intended becomes encoded in the way the explicit message (Evaluation Matters) is conveyed.  While the text of the message clearly states that the institution cares about student ratings, the tone of the message (e.g. its formality), the way it is displayed (on a webpage that 1/2 the student body visits and that probably 3% read), and the absence of this message in any other venue outside of the email sent to students (reminding them that their ratings are "important to the University and used in many ways"), convey a counter-message that student ratings are a necessary part of the institutional landscape but one that few of us really care about.

Again, the issue here isn't whether or not institutions should care about student ratings.  Rather, institutions should be careful to consider all of the components of a message, not merely text, when attempting to convey a message to students.  Factors such as tone, placement, repetition, consistency, and alignment with institutional practices will, ultimately, be much more powerful communicators than static text on a page or in the body of an email and communicate a hidden curriculum to students that can be quite impactful.  And, when these factors have the potential to communicate a message very different from the one intended, institutions run the risk of coming across as insincere, bureaucratic, and naive.

For a great example of holistic messaging that really conveys the message an institution wants students to hear and embrace, see Westminster College's message about e-Portfolios from former president, Michael Bassis.  Contrast the amount of time, energy, and thoughtfulness that went into this messaging with the message I referenced above from my own institution.  Could a student doubt that Westminster College values e-portfolios after watching a taped message from the President and then reading through an e-portfolio that he created himself?  Very different from the message that would have been conveyed had the college opted for a static text-based message on an obscure webpage.

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