A Look into AUSU’s Peer Course Reviews

Course evaluations are routinely used by universities as a way for students to provide formal feedback on course content and instruction.  AUSU recently announced a new and supplementary course evaluation called Peer Course Review.  By providing anonymous course reviews, students can give feedback on AU courses and help future students make enrollment decisions.  Ideally, AU will also use these reviews to inform change and adjust course delivery.  However, there are challenges with over-reliance on student feedback; reviews can negatively target faculty or reduce the quality of instruction in exchange for positive reviews.  So how are peer course reviews different and what value do they bring students?

What are peer reviews?

Traditionally, peer reviews are a process where people observe their peers for the purpose of providing constructive feedback and producing a better product.  The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University provides several key traits of good peer reviewers: experience, integrity, trust, mentorship, and practicality. When viewed in this way, the process creates a sense of community and a sharing of knowledge and expertise.  Students are often asked to participate in peer reviews for the purpose of collaboration and to learn from their mistakes in a low-stakes environment.

When asked about AUSU’s vision for Peer Course Reviews, Executive Director Jodi Campbell describes it as an opportunity for students to initiate conversation and community saying “[o]ur intention with re-branding our Peer Course Review service was to create an opportunity for AU students to come together and develop a community around discussing their course experience.” As a true peer process, the conversation between students is “the backbone of how we approached this project.” (Campbell).  When viewed in this light, Peer Course Reviews is a platform made in the interest of students for the purpose of sharing community and enhancing student experience.

Privacy, authenticity, and risks

Most evaluation methods, especially those via online platforms, raise questions about privacy and authenticity.  AUSU’s website emphasizes students’ responses and “identity will not be shared with the university.” However, a student would be most likely to complete a survey during or soon after their course finishes and anyone can access the reviews.  It seems there would have to be lag time between submissions and online posting to eliminate the possibility of a course tutor guessing which student provided the feedback and comments.  But having to wait to post reviews could push back any possible course changes identified in student feedback. Students will have to be mindful of this possibility as they fill out the forms, but hopefully those concerns won’t affect the results very much.

A recent study by Justin Esarey and Natalie Valdes claims student evaluations cannot be entirely valid or unbiased.  Their study suggests student feedback is unreliable with no identifiable correlation to teaching ability; therefore, it is unfair to use them for evaluating faculty.  Another study by Inside Higher Ed says student evaluations can often be judgemental and even discriminatory. Specifically, both studies provide evidence of course evaluations discriminating against professors based on ethnicity, gender, and experience.

I was interested to know if AUSU has created a policy to censor negative reviews and AUSU responded saying they believe Peer Course Reviews can be safe while at the same time allow students to speak openly about their experiences.  Campbell said, “We want students to feel like they can speak freely, yet be respectful to the AU environment and their fellow student who would be seeking information regarding their next course.” Campbell added that there will always be students who do not like the course they are in, but by creating an open space for students to be honest about their experience, it “will make it rewarding for everyone who participates.”

Course reviews are also not without risks, and there can be a loss to the quality of education when there is too heavy of a reliance on student evaluations of courses and professors.  Professors might lower their standards as a result of student evaluations leading to “a consumer model of education” where student experience comes before university values.  The AUSU website indicates reoccurring themes in student feedback will be complied and sent to AU.  This agrees with Esarey and Valdes’ study that highlights the value of comparing trends in student feedback as individual responses can often be unreliable.

AUSU cites the ability to offer students more effective engagement opportunities and enhance student services as opportunities which outweigh potential risks with the program.  AUSU notes in just the first month alone Peer Course Reviews received 644 student reviews.  This is a significant increase to AU’s traditional course reviews which received only 825 course surveys in the last 5 years!

Informing Change to AU Courses and Student Experience

I also asked AUSU how they see Peer Course Reviews benefitting students and informing change.  The response from Campbell was clear and uplifting, AUSU has student experience and community at the heart of the Peer Course Reviews:

“The advocacy we perform within the University is absolutely essential to improving the overall student experience at AU and we are proud of this work.  As we are constantly seeking student feedback in various areas of the student experience, the Peer Course Review service will be a huge part of how we gather course-specific information to take back to the University.  This course-specific information will help us to connect with each faculty and program area and relay the data that pertains directly to their courses.  When you see positive changes at AU, you can be confident that your AU students’ union was at the table advocating for that change.  Our goal is to create a peer-to-peer course review platform that helps to inform students as they choose their next AU course and create a way for AUSU to gather feedback, so we can ensure every course experience is a positive one.” (Campbell)

What else could be added?

After researching the benefits and challenges of peer reviews and course evaluations, I hope AU also gives tutors and professors a chance to critique their own departments and other faculties.  They could also initiate external peer reviews from other institutions offering similar courses.  For student evaluations, having more short answer questions could be helpful, questions such as: “What overarching theme did this course cover?” or “If you could change something about this course what would it be?”.  The questions could also be designed to encourage positive feedback, so the reviews do not elicit only the difficult or negative course experiences.  There could also be more transparency in how student feedback will inform change.

In the future, I hope that AUSU might consider sharing with students any course adjustments in response to student feedback.  As AUSU’s portfolio of students’ reviews evolve, it will be interesting to see how the reviews shape students’ course registrations and influence adjustments to course design and content.

For those who are interested in providing feedback, AUSU is offering ongoing prize draws in exchange for reviews.  Besides prize incentives, Peer Course Reviews give students a chance to have their voice heard, initiate future course changes and share their impression of course difficulty.  Rate My Professors is also a popular resource for students to rate professors and give overall ratings of post-secondary institutions.