Op Ed: New Class Who ‘Dis? Effects of syllabus and instructor changes on course evaluation

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The following piece was submitted by Dino Tremblay, a fourth-year Honours psychology student at UNB Saint John. Any inquiries into the contents of this article or his study can be directed to him through email.

The Baron reached out to the head of the Psychology department for a quote, but they were not able to provide a comment at that time.

(Wolfgang Duechtel/The Baron)

Course evaluation and instructor feedback are greatly important in post-secondary education, as it helps students feel involved in their quality of education and helps professors continuously improve on their methods. This system, however, is still imperfect. The power dynamic between students and professors is still to the point where students fear providing honest feedback, how those comments may affect their image in the instructor’s eyes, how they are treated in class, and even how they are marked.

The fear of such repercussions is nothing new to the University of New Brunswick: in 2019, professor Ricardo Duschesne left his position after being denounced for his views on immigration, minorities, and white supremacism. This was not his first incident, as he had complaints made about his opinions going back to 2015.

This example demonstrates how long it takes for educational institutions to act. Much like the views of Duschesne, UNB’s protocols are stuck in the past and affect students and staff alike. Nowhere is this more evident than with the multiple professor changes that have occurred this year within the Psychology department.

It was October 1; students were starting to settle into classes, have their first round of midterms, and were completing their assignments. This is when it was first announced that classes taught by Dr. Moira Law needed new instructors to come in as she had gone on leave. This affected multiple upper-level psychology courses, such as Program Evaluation, Psychopathology, History of Psychology, as well as students in the Honours and Master’s programs who now needed a new advisor. More than one week later, the classes officially had new instructors and changes to their syllabi.

At this point of the year, past when one can drop a course without receiving the “withdrawn” note on their transcript, one would hope that nothing drastic would change in their class. Sadly, students received little chance to provide input on changes to the course, and the input that was heard from students had little to no impact on syllabus modifications.

These problems, and many others regarding course evaluation, were included in a survey sent out to students of the changed courses. As there were many, and some students having multiple classes changed dramatically for them (e.g., the addition of a final exam worth 60%), I created a course evaluation to see how significantly students were impacted by these changes and to give them a voice to present their anxieties and comments without fear of being punished.

Questions for the survey were pulled from sample questions for course evaluation on the University of Wisconsin-Madison website. Additional questions specifically regarding instructor and syllabus changes were added, as well as an open-ended question at the end for general student opinions. Questions were scored on a seven-point Likert scale (1 being “strongly disagree”, 7 being “strongly agree”). The survey included optional demographics questions (what year, which class or classes) to help with additional analysis. I obtained a sample of 59 out of the total of 132 students on the D2L class list between the three affected classes. Here are some notable results from the survey:

  • “The adapted syllabus is superior to the previous version.” M = 2.86
  • “The course environment felt like a welcoming place to express my ideas.” M = 3.54
  • “The instructor’s teaching methods were effective.” M = 3.34
  • “The instructor maintained accommodations set by the previous instructor.” M = 3.12
  • “I think the university handled the change of instructors well.” M = 2.08
  • “Due to changes in the syllabus, my mental health was negatively affected.” M = 5.37
  • “The university gave me adequate support during this change of instructors.” M = 2.34
  • “The new instructor took input from students on the changes to the syllabus.” M = 2.58
  • “Input from the students on syllabus changes was taken into account for the new version.” M = 2.36

Students are told that they need to adapt to these situations and that their resilience will bear the fruits of success. These results show that many students do not have the privilege of easily adapting to these changes. It is the role of professors to effectively teach all their students, and their methods should reflect that. Many people dislike receiving criticism on their performance, and that is a normal occurrence. It is everyone’s responsibility, however, to be aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses and to constantly improve. A professor who stops learning and adapting their ways of teaching to their student’s needs is the day they stop being an educator.

I write this article so that all students may become aware of the situation. Due to the current pandemic, and the university’s questionable COVID-19 protocols, the risk of professors taking leave for medical reasons is very possible. This situation could happen to anyone at any time.

I want everyone who took one of these classes to know this: you are not alone. Many of us have struggled and stressed our way through this semester. We have felt misunderstood, alone, and frustrated with the university. I hope that this creates a movement so that we as students can set a precedent for the changes that instructors can make to their syllabus and courses. Students need to be more involved with their educational future.