After a semester of teachers evaluating students through test grades, paper commentary and online homework, students now have the chance to turn the tables. Thanks to the revamped Student Assessment of Instruction System (SAIS), students can give valuable feedback to faculty online.

These responses do much more than many students realize. Providing insight into courses and programs, the student feedback is of vital importance to gauging teacher improvement and student satisfaction. SAIS itself was actually created out of student desire.

“The whole evaluation of instruction process originated with students who sought information from fellow students who already had those teachers,” provost Susan Martin said.

Student Government Association upholds this desire, using the SAIS information for their Tennessee 101 website, where students can take a look at courses and instructors as they register for the next semester.

The administration puts a lot of weight on these evaluations.

“We want to make sure that we recruit and maintain the very best students, and we know that the very best students will require the very best faculty,” Martin said. “The success of our undergraduate students relies on the excellence of our faculty. Student evaluations are the best way to ensure that excellence.”

Student surveys can even factor into tenure decisions.

Though students could understandably feel hesitant about submitting their honest opinions to teachers, there is, in fact, nothing to fear: the feedback received by faculty is not linked to the student who submitted it. And the faculty cannot see narrative comments until after grades have been posted.

Upperclassmen may find the system different from years past, when evaluations were of the paper variety. In order to provide the administration with feedback, students had to fill out a form and anonymously turn it in to a teacher. This practice, deemed inefficient by university officials, has been replaced by the completely online SAIS. The switch could potentially save up to 1.25 tons of paper a year, as well as $30,000 in resources. It will also speed up the process of getting reviews into the hands of professors, one which used to take months of paper. Now, results are more immediately available.

The decision to go exclusively online is a risky one. UT’s administration has concerns that participation will drop off as it has at other institutions that have made similar changes to their evaluation policies. As a result, many teachers are being encouraged to continuously remind students to complete the evaluations. Last year’s online pilot project generated a 38 percent response overall.

“While we’ve made good progress, it is important to note that the previous, all-paper system response was 80-90 percent overall,” Martin said. “We’ve been communicating with students in a variety of ways to emphasize the importance of their participation. The single greatest factor in getting students to finish their surveys is getting a reminder from their instructor.”

As of Monday morning, response rates stood at 48 percent.

Students have generally been positive about the new system.

“I didn’t do teacher evaluations last year because it seemed like a lot of work to fill out all the paperwork and then have to go turn it in,” Katie Draper, sophomore in speech pathology, said. “This is the time of year when we’re the busiest, and paper evaluations just seemed like a hassle, but the online isn’t so bad.”

John Sikes, freshman in mechanical engineering, said the best way to encourage students to finish evaluations is simple.

“Make them extra credit,” Sikes said.

Whether or not teachers decide to do so remains to be seen, but a final push to achieve a full response will occur on Wednesday, Nov. 30. The “Chill Out” Study Break event is set for noon to 3 p.m. in the Commons of Hodges Library, where UT Dining Services and Mayfield Dairy will provide a variety of treats. While enjoying the sweets, students can also complete their surveys.

To take the survey now, go to http://oira.utk.edu/sais and click on the link “Fall 2011 Semester Online Evaluations.” If you have not yet completed your survey, please do so by midnight on Friday, Dec. 2.