Complaints about Ryerson University profs signal trend
The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, February 13, 2011 11:39AM EST
TORONTO - The latest evaluation of teachers at Toronto's Ryerson University shows a dramatic spike in complaints by students, and some say it reflects a general trend toward student dissatisfaction with their professors' teaching abilities.
The annual report by Ryerson's ombudswoman shows an increase of more than 80 per cent in complaints about instructors for the 2009-2010 academic year.
The total number of complaints jumped to 78 from 43, with most falling into three areas: disrespectful behaviour toward students, lack of availability to meet with students one-on-one and biased decision making.
And similar concerns are being voiced by students at other Canadian universities.
"A professor might be a great researcher but a terrible teacher," said Peter Henderson, a recent graduate of the University of Ottawa's political science program.
"But because they're publishing great papers and working with important people in their field, they can stay on and continue to teach students despite their failings as an educator."
Maxine Wong, a biology and fine arts graduate from Toronto's York University, recalls a molecular genetics professor who provided no notes or textbook and tested students on minute details from his lectures.
"All he did was talk, and talk and talk," said Wong.
"It was pretty terrible because you couldn't really get any questions in, there weren't any readings and you had to wire yourself on coffee just to follow along. It felt like I was drowning."
The professor was not available to meet with students during his scheduled office hour, said Wong.
"If you asked a question about something, he'd look at you like you were an idiot. Which is weird because that's why you're in the class -- to learn from him."
The problem with universities is they're run like businesses, with schools more likely to hire "stars" than good teachers to attract more students, said Wong.
She shared her thoughts about the professor on the anonymous evaluation form that students are given at the end of each course, but many students don't think the feedback makes a difference.
"You fill it out but you don't know what happens to it, it just disappears," said Wong.
"For all you know it could be a psychological placebo to make you feel better while they just shred them up afterwards."
Pierre Mercier, associate vice-president of research and planning at the University of Ottawa, said course evaluations are more important than commonly perceived. Repeated negative scores can lead to dismissal, he said.
The results are sent to the professor, the department chief and the dean, who will meet with instructors to discuss how the scores could be improved.
A professor could be asked to take seminars at the school's teaching resource centre, or change his or her grading scheme, said Mercier.
The results are also considered when a professor applies for tenure.
Mercier acknowledges that the process is slow and invisible to students, who often will have graduated by the time the problem has been resolved.
"We don't go in the classroom to tell the students, 'We sat down with the prof, we discussed it and we're planning to do this and that.' It's done privately with the professor, but it is done," said Mercier.
Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, associate vice-president at York, said although it's expected that faculty heads will discuss performance with professors, it is possible for some instructors to fall through the cracks.
"Because chairs are fellow colleagues, it can be awkward," said Fisher-Stitt. "Sometimes people feel uncomfortable. But that is supposed to be part of your job as chair."
Chris Evans, vice-provost academic at Ryerson, said the university is concerned about the spike in complaints, and has implemented the ombudswoman's recommendation to provide faculty with more training.
"The total number of complaints is low compared to the number of student-instructor interactions that occur," added Evans.
"It remains to be seen whether it's a trend or a one-off event. If we see that number continuing to go up year after year or if it stays at a higher level, that would be more of a clear pattern."