Faculty vote could open course reviews

Pending approval from College faculty, undergraduate students may be able to view their peers’ online course evaluations dating back to 2006, starting next year. Spearheaded by the Student Assembly’s academic affairs committee, this proposal has attracted support from both students and faculty.

This Monday, the committee of chairs, comprising heads of the College’s arts and sciences departments, recommended the initiative’s approval. Faculty members will discuss and vote on the proposal in May, Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno said.

The committee on instruction, which oversees faculty-student curricular interactions, and the committee on priorities also recommended the proposal earlier this year, Mastanduno said.

Faculty members read course reviews submitted each term, using them especially when modifying courses, but the information is not currently available to students, the Assembly’s academic affairs committee chair Mac Murphy ’15 said.

If the proposal passes, faculty members can choose to release their course evaluations to students via the registrar’s website, Murphy said. Only students will be able to access the website, and professors will not be able to see their colleagues’ reviews.

If a professor decides to opt in, Murphy said, the evaluations for all of his or her classes will be made available for one year, which prohibits him or her from “cherry-picking” specific courses. Professors will be given the choice to opt in every year.

Faculty members have expressed a wide range of opinions about publicizing their course reviews, and the opt-in allows them to act on that view, Mastanduno said.

“I expect lots of faculty will opt in, but I still think it’s fair for faculty members, at this stage, to be able to decide themselves, if they’d like that for whatever reason,” Mastanduno said. “I don’t think it’s simply a question of people with good evaluations want to opt in and those without them, won’t.”

Government department chair John Carey said course evaluations are a reliable method of evaluating teaching, due to the high student response rates and the quality of the questions.

“My experience with the course selection is that anytime you survey thousands of people, you’ll get some wacky responses or some people who are cranky and hostile — you understand that and you prepare for it, but by and large, students are pretty good at identifying good teaching,” Carey said.

The website will contain results from six quantitative questions present on the current evaluation forms in addition to three new, qualitative questions developed by the Student Assembly. The faculty must approve nine questions, which would be optional and posted anonymously.

If approved, the site will lack comprehensive qualitative data for the first few years, Murphy said. The quantitative data, which dates back to the inception of the online review system, will be more robust.

“A lot of things that are most pertinent when you’re choosing a class is the type of work assigned or whether it’s a lecture class or a discussion class, and those are things you can’t adequately convey in a quantitative manner,” Murphy said.

College Registrar Meredith Braz said in an email that she is currently working with computing services to model a possible prototype and is uncertain whether the site will be operational by the end of fall term.

While department chairs interviewed expressed support for the initiative, they also noted potential downsides.

Psychological and brain sciences department chair Jay Hull agreed that course evaluations should be made available to students and said he encourages potential students to look at past course reviews to gain a sense of the workload. He said, however, that student comments could sometimes be cutting, making young faculty members particularly vulnerable.

Murphy said there was also debate about whether adjunct faculty members should be included in the initiative.

Douglas Staiger, chair of the economics department, said he strongly supports the proposal and will encourage faculty members in his department to opt in. He added, however, that some professors — including junior faculty or senior faculty who are developing new courses — may be uncomfortable opting in.

If the majority of professors participate, Staiger said, there will be increased pressure for others to opt in, noting also that professors’ unwillingness to publish course evaluations could lead students to develop a negative perception of the class.

Carey said that making course evaluations available may cause professors to “teach to the evaluations,” hoping to curry favor from students.

Other common modes of obtaining information about classes — like the Hacker Club’s Course Picker or word of mouth — do not present as complete a picture as the proposed website, Murphy said.

Of 10 students interviewed, all expressed support for the initiative.

“More transparency is a good thing, as long as the information is authentic,” Isaac Guttman ’14 said.

Last October, the Assembly surveyed students through a campus-wide email to assess the popularity of making course reviews public and sent the results to Mastanduno. About 900 students responded with “resounding” approval over two days, Murphy said.

Other Ivy League institutions have publicly accessible course review databases. Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University publish official course reviews. Brown University and Columbia University use sites similar to Hacker Club’s Course Picker.

The article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended: April 18, 2014 

The initial version of this story misidentified the year when online course evaluations began, which was 2006, not 2005. The story has been revised to correct the error.

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