(opinions) spot survey lte

A student using their computer, April 25, 2019.

Virginia Tech’s central method of gathering student feedback on teaching is falling short. The university must change the composition of the SPOT survey if it wishes to value student feedback. 

At the end of every semester, students are invited to complete surveys on teaching as part of Virginia Tech’s Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT) system. According to the Faculty Handbook, “student evaluation of courses and instructors is an integral component of a good teaching program.”

While I will not do it here, please note that looking at what is done with SPOT responses is important in assessing the system. An examination of the survey’s composition itself is also critically important. The university must ask the right questions if it wishes to effectively collect student perceptions. Unfortunately, this is not the current reality. 

The only point at which students are explicitly given the opportunity to critically evaluate instructor performance is through five static statements with which students are asked to rank their level of agreement. Students are also directly invited to freely write their thoughts on how the instructor helped them in their learning, but not what instructors could have done better. Why include one, but not the other? 

Five statements with which students should simply indicate their level of agreement are not capable of sufficiently capturing student perceptions of collegiate instruction. 

The ability of students to evaluate course design in general is even more abysmal. Students are asked to rank their level of agreement on two very broad statements dealing with whether they gained something from the course. There is no direct opportunity for students to freely write about how the course design was beneficial or deficient. 

Then comes the most patronizing question one could ask students on a survey designed to collect perceptions of teaching: “What could you have done to be a better learner?” Students received grades, (and other feedback in some classes), over the course of the entire semester! We’ve been thinking about how we could do better for the past 15 weeks! This abhorrent question should be tossed entirely. It’s our time, and for many our only time, to share how we think our instructor and course design could have done a better job. 

At the end of the survey rests the additional comments section. This is the only place where students could freely write about their perceptions of teaching deficiencies. This means that any written critical commentary on any component of teaching is relegated to the very end of the survey in a section that is not even directly devoted to doing this. This is perhaps an indication of whether critical student evaluation is valued in the first place.

Questions should ideally be sufficiently focused and allow students to freely yet concisely critically respond to the pedagogy. Agree or disagree questions on their own fail to fully capture student perceptions. Appropriately targeted free-write questions will prevent instructors from having to sift through mass unfocused criticism at the end of the survey. 

The SPOT survey also failed to adjust to the past two drastically different academic semesters. Nowhere were students directly invited to share their perceptions of whether pedagogy appropriately responded to course modality. This could be useful information as the university and instructors prepare for another semester in the times of COVID-19. 

SPOT is the only opportunity for many students to anonymously share their perceptions of teaching at Virginia Tech. The university proclaims student feedback is integral. It is past time that proclamations move from governing documents to reality.