We have a really big issue for you this week, including contributions from two new writers [Trevor Siwak and Donna Koziak], the official announcement for the Athabasca University Students’ Union 10th Anniversary AGM [and no, you don’t have to live in Edmonton to be involved], a letter from a student, and a lot more!
If anyone planned to respond to AU’s request for input on their website but didn’t get around to it, you have until the 25th of April. For more information, see the News section of this issue.
CONCERNS OVER TUTOR EVALUATION FORMS
This week I received a disturbing letter from a student. It described an occurrence that should never happen to an AU student, and one to which I am all too vulnerable.
I can’t print the letter in its entirety, because the student was understandably concerned about revealing her identity, but she wanted to let other students know what happened to her. I should note at this point that I can’t back up the claims of the letter, but I’ll give you what information I have.
The gist of the letter was this: This student – I’ll call her Jane – filled out a tutor evaluation form which was sent to her upon completion of her course. She was honest on the form, and mentioned a few problems that she had encountered with her tutor. About a week after she returned the form, she received “a very unpleasant phone call from the tutor involved. Although he did not specifically say anything inappropriate, he did raise his voice and seemed angry and very defensive.” To add to the unpleasantness, Jane is set to enrol in another course within the same faculty, and believes that she may get the same tutor again. She is understandably concerned that this tutor may be biased against her because of the incident.
I might also add that even if the tutor is not biased, she would be rather uncomfortable telephoning this tutor for assistance.
This is the first report I have head of a tutor contacting a student about an evaluation, and clearly it is inappropriate. The question is, how did the tutor know who had sent in the form?
I have heard a few times from AU students that the tutor evaluation forms are sent to tutors. After speaking with Cindy Kilborn in tutor services, I found out that this was the case quite some time ago, but it is no longer true. Also, at one time the forms were pre labelled with the student’s identifying information, but this is also no longer true [although Jane tells me that her form had a sticker with her name and ID number on it]. The new forms were apparently only just introduced, so it’s possible that Jane received the old form.
It used to be that there were two forms – one which asked about features of the course, and one which asked about tutor support. The new form combines the two. According to Cindy, the older forms had a message on the top clearly stating how the information on the form would be used, and to whom it would be sent. When the forms were being sent to tutors she says they were clearly marked with this information. Now that tutor services has moved to providing tutors with aggregate reports only, the new forms are said to contain a notice indicating that this is how the information will be used. I have not received an evaluation form in quite some time, so I can’t confirm what is written on them. For the record I don’t recall a notice like this on the forms I did receive a couple of years ago, but I can’t claim that my memory is perfect. I have one stuffed away somewhere in my files – I’ll find it eventually.
I have, however, heard from an AU tutor [not directly] that the evaluation information is indeed compiled into a report and sent out every few months for the tutor’s reference. This being the case, however, it’s hard to explain why Jane was contacted so quickly by her tutor, as you would expect there would be a delay between the time the form is received by tutor services, the data processed, and a compiled report prepared for the tutor. As the reports are only sent out every few months, it seems strange that Jane was contacted within a week.
I can’t say how this would have happened, and I can only speculate as to how the tutor became aware of who had sent in the negative evaluation. Perhaps the tutor did somehow get a peek at the original form, but it is just as likely that he surmised who the complainant was based on details that were provided. It could even be that this tutor has only a small number of students, and making the connection was easy.
There is no reason to believe at this time that the information was in any way mishandled by Tutor services, though I think it’s important that students are aware that there is this potential for trouble. For the record, Cindy Kilborn strongly encourages any student encountering a problem of this kind – or any tutor related problem – to contact Tutor Services so that the problem can be addressed. Tutors are not permitted to use the evaluation information to confront students who complain.
While it is not clear how the tutor found out about Jane’s review, what is clear is that his actions were reprehensible. To contact a student about a confidential evaluation, even if the student’s identity can be ascertained, is clearly inappropriate. First there is the issue of confidential contact information. In order for tutors to do their jobs, they have to have access to a student’s home address, phone number, and possibly their email address. There is an understanding, however, that this information is only to be used for course related purposes. Confronting a student about an evaluation is clearly a misuse of that information.
Second, there is the nature of the student/tutor relationship. Students and instructors are not peers. There is an inherent imbalance in the relationship, because students are so reliant on a tutor’s approval of their work. When a tutor calls to express anger or disapproval of a student, it amounts to bullying. This behaviour would be improper even from a peer or a subordinate, such as if a Denny’s waitress called you about something you printed on a feedback card. In the future, anyone in Jane’s situation would probably not fill out a review on this tutor [or perhaps any other], or if she does, it will only contain positive comments. I can’t imagine any tutor not being aware how much power they have over students, or how distressing such a confrontation might be.
It also must be noted that when a tutor uses a student’s home phone number to confront them on a matter like this, a student might feel quite threatened, knowing that this unprofessional person also has their home address and other private information.
Fortunately I suspect that this tutor is the exception, and that most would never behave like this. Tutors are, in general, educated, mature, and intelligent people. However, students might be concerned that if they fill out a negative review and their identity becomes known, that they may not be marked fairly in the future even if they never hear from the angry tutor.
I have to admit that I have this concern, because I’ve filled out a few negative reviews in the past. I have also filled out many positive ones, and strongly encouraged other students to fill out the forms. I would hate to see people stop doing so, because this type of review can be extremely valuable in helping the university track tutor performance, and in ensuring top quality service for students. Because AU tutors work at a distance, this is really the only way to know how satisfied students are.
While I cannot say for sure what went wrong with Jane’s evaluation form, I can tell you that according to Tutor Services the new system should increase the confidentiality of the reports, and reduce any chance of this type of occurrence. I would encourage any student who has had a problem of this kind, or any problem with the tutor at all, to contact tutor services, but I would also encourage anyone who said a problem to contact the students’ union at firstname.lastname@example.org as the union would like to track these problems, and can provide a means for your issue to be investigated without you having to contact university directly.
Also, if you have received an evaluation form but you are not done the course, you may delay filling it out until the course is completed, or you may choose to simply discard the form. Sending it in is always optional.
I’ll try to provide an update on this issue in the coming weeks.
I hope you all had a great long weekend!
Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief