How to Improve the Effectiveness of CATS

Taleen Postian, Staff Writer

CATS, or the Villanova Course and Teacher Survey, is something students get reminders to fill out and allotted class time to complete at the end of each semester. As a way to let professors know students’ thoughts on and experience with the class, it is a tool that relies on open communication and faith in the tool itself to be effective. But students may be less likely to complete the CATS when they do not see the real results of their participation. Students want to feel that their actions are impactful and effective, and the current design of the CATS as a survey whose results are only used to improve future iterations of the course does not provide that user affirmation. 

Seeing the effects of CATS would inspire more students to complete them and, as a result, make the entire initiative more effective and widespread, as well as make the effort of dedicated class time and professors’ energy to administer the survey worth it. Unfortunately, asking professors to develop some kind of CATS report on changes made to their courses or teaching style is unlikely to happen and would likely be shot down as unnecessary extra work. The best solution to this issue is to replicate the CATS, whose formation and existence does a great service to the University, and administer it in the middle of the semester. 

Professors will often implore their students to email them or come to office hours if there is anything they want to communicate about their experience in the course, but often fear of grade retribution or lack of time prevent students from communicating clearly and openly with their professors. With a midterm feedback survey, this channel of communication can be opened without students holding back their constructive criticism for fear of academic punishment. 

The CLAS Academic Reform Committee (ARC), a club focused on improving the liberal arts college, developed and distributed a version of this solution last semester called the Mid-Term Feedback Form. The aim of this mid-term class survey had open-ended questions developed by the professor that they could then use to easily develop suggestions and improvements to their class and teaching. Having questions developed by the professor on the ARC’s mid-semester feedback form allows the form to be tailored not only to the course itself but also to the current student cohort taking the class, and thus can be an even more effective teaching tool. ARC developed this feedback form when it noticed that some of its members were having professors ask for student feedback around midterms and were not always getting an amount of responses that were useful. This mid-semester feedback form will also provide professors with real-time data about the current state of their class and allow the students to see how their feedback is implemented and used to guide the way the class is run in the latter half of the semester. 

This initiative encourages dialogue between the students and their professors without the implicit power dynamics at play when giving feedback in a more public forum like in class or over email. The anonymity can be a conduit for more authentic evaluations and reports on the course. 

Besides solving the main issue of a lack of visible progress made to the students who must fill out the survey, having an anonymous mid-term feedback survey that still gives the professor critiques eliminates the concern that professors might have that a negative CATS review could put their job performance evaluation in jeopardy. The fact that a mid-term survey would not be administrative but only impactful on the class itself would make it less stressful for professors worried about the impact CATS can have on their job performance review. Instead, they can focus on really listening to and understanding the concerns and feedback of their students. 

Opening new lines of communication between students and professors is always a great idea, and this new ARC initiative is one that I have much faith in having an immensely positive impact on individual students’ learning experiences. A mid-term feedback report will provide a way for students to see the results of their voices being heard in their classes. It will also give professors a much better understanding of how the class is receiving their teachings in immediacy, resulting in a better class and course experience overall.