Course election opens as few students utilize new online course evaluations

by Alyssa Mehra | 10/28/15 7:38pm

For the first time during a course election period, students selecting courses for the winter 2016 term will have access to course evaluations through Banner Student.

This change comes after faculty voted to allow students to access course evaluations submitted by students who have previously taken the class.

Course evaluations must be completed by students at the end of each term and include questions pertaining to teaching, course material and course organization. Students rate a variety of statements on scale from one to five to express disagreement or agreement, respectively. The evaluations include questions about overall course quality, the amount of effort students put into the course, the degree to which each course is intellectually engaging and the professor’s to challenge students.

Only quantitative metrics can be viewed by students, and the data can only be viewed if faculty members agree to make reviews of their courses public. The evaluations are reviewed by the professor before being published, and faculty also have the ability discuss comments with their associate deans before posting the evaluations. Course evaluations can be helpful in picking classes to balance a workload as well as to see how one would engage with a specific professor’s teaching style, Committee on Instruction chair and computer science professor Devin Balkcom said.

Other professors expressed similar feelings of the benefits that open access to course evaluations can bring to students, although English professor Thomas Luxon said he would like to see a growth in the amount of information available from the reviews.

“I think it’s a very good thing that students have access to the course evaluations,” Luxon said. “I would like to see students have access not only to the quantitative responses but also to the qualitative remarks made by students. Currently, they don’t have access to those, but in many cases they are the most valuable parts of the evaluation.”

While students can access reviews for any professor, faculty members only have access to course reviews about themselves, not other faculty members, Luxon said. This becomes a problem if a faculty member is trying to advise a student, he said.

Course evaluations became available at the beginning of this academic year after students had already elected fall-term courses but before the add-drop period ended.

In October 2013, Student Assembly spearheaded an initiative that would open official course reviews to students, surveying approximately 900 students in the process. Their results, which were strongly in favor of opening student access to the reviews, were delivered to Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno.

The pressure and interest to open the evaluations came from the students, Balkcom said. The Committee on Instruction took the recommendations and interest from students and proposed making the course evaluations available to students, he said.

Before course evaluations opened, there were other tools that allowed students to review classes prior to course election. Course Picker, a website created by the Hacker Club and the Assembly, is a tool through which students write informal comments about a class or professor. Course Picker is popular because students want to get as much information as possible before choosing their schedule, Balkcom said.

“Currently, students make a lot of their choices based on recommendations made by their friends,” Luxon said. “It would be my hope that having access to the course evaluation from previous terms would be even better information than they’re getting casually from their friends.”

The open access to reviews can also help faculty, in addition to students. Faculty can utilize student input from past courses when designing new classes, Balkcom said, adding that College-sponsored surveys generally have higher response rates than student-initiated programs like Course Picker.

“There’s also a question of the quality of the information,” he said. “We think that the surveys have been pretty carefully designed, and we get very high response rates. So we can get a pretty at least broad picture, I don’t know how accurate, but certainly a broad picture from the evaluations.”

Though the course evaluations opened before the winter 2016 term, Balkcom says only around five percent of students have looked at it. Not all students know that course evaluations are public or know where to find them, Balkcom said.

None of the 20 students interviewed for this article said they had looked at the course evaluations available through Banner Student, although some had looked at Course Picker.

Many students interviewed looked at the median grade for classes they were interested in taking.

Balkcom attributed the low interest in the course evaluations to the lack of knowledge surrounding their opening. Additionally, many faculty have either been unaware of the program or have elected not to opt into it, he said.

“It’s scared me out of certain classes because people say the professors are horrible and it’s a really hard class,” Caroline Cutler ’19 said, referring to Course Picker.

The evaluations are helpful because students can learn which professors are the best to take specific courses with, she said.

“[Faculty are] happy to have this information out there,” Balkcom said. “Most of us don’t have tremendous self-confidence problems.”

“The information was produced by students,” Luxon said. “I see no reason why they shouldn’t have access to this information — all of it. The only stipulation I say is that faculty members in teaching their first year at Dartmouth ought to be allowed a first-year blackout.”

Not just the quantitative responses but the qualitative, open response portions of the evaluations should be open to students, he said.

“I would go so far as to say that the public should have access to all of it,” he said.