Dept. chairs discuss opening course reviews

by Chris Leech | 11/4/14 8:29pm

Following Monday’s faculty meeting, students and professors largely expressed support for opening course evaluations to students. The policy, introduced by dean of the faculty Michael Mastanduno, will provide students with the answers to eight quantitative questions and three qualitative questions about courses.

The quantitative questions, present on current course review forms, will ask students to numerically rate a class on criteria including intellectual engagement, organization and teaching effectiveness. Students will be able to view the mean and median responses.

The qualitative prompts discuss instructors’ evaluation methods, course structure and how the class influenced the student’s academic experience at Dartmouth. Responses to these “student-initiated” questions will be available to students and the evaluated professor but not to deans and faculty supervisors. The existing qualitative questions will remain on the form, but only faculty and deans will be able to view responses.

Under the new policy, professors have a 10-day period to review their comments and are responsible for bringing offensive or otherwise inappropriate comments to the attention of their dean, who may choose to remove the comment from the record.

Faculty can opt in to the program each spring, and those who choose to participate can pick the term their reviews will be made available to students.

The measure has been raised repeatedly. The committee of chairs recommended the measure earlier this year, but faculty voted to table the motion during a meeting in May.

Economics department chair Bruce Sacerdote said he voted for the proposal due to concerns that the current options for student course review, including the Dartmouth Course Picker website maintained by the Hacker Club and Student Assembly, do not provide a representative sample of student opinion.

Sacerdote said course reviews advise his teaching, and that the majority of students fill them out. He said he does not expect the change to dramatically shift class enrollment because most information students use to choose classes is already public.

“This will just clarify which courses students really enjoy,” he said.

Geography department chair Susanne Freidberg said the fact that students can write anything in their evaluations is most threatening to junior professors. She added that she believes it is better for this feedback to come through official channels than unofficial online sources like RateMyProfessor.com.

“The information in the assessment is a mixed bag,” Freidberg said. “All kinds of things affect how students assess courses, from the weather on down.”

Mathematics department chair Dana Williams said he supported the change, but he warned that students should not pick courses just based on ratings, noting that popularity is not necessarily synonymous with good teaching.

Government department chair John Carey said one concern with the policy is that professors without prior experience may receive poor reviews in their first few years at the College but noted that allowing them to opt in or out could address this.

He said he has noticed students take reviews seriously. While students prefer less reading and higher grades, he said, in general course reviews accurately reflect teaching quality.

Williams said the best way to pick courses might not involve ratings or reviews.

“I tell first-years to go to people who you respect and ask them who the best professor is on campus and take his or her course, regardless of what it is,” Williams said.

He added that with the release, competition might drive professors to improve.

Computer science department chair Thomas Cormen said he supported the intent behind the measure but restricting deans’ and department chairs’ access to the reviews may be a problem, noting that they should have access because they are responsible for curriculum quality. This objection was raised at the meeting, but the motion was not changed, he said.

Of seven students interviewed informally, all reacted positively to the new policy.

Spencer Heim ’18 said he planned to look at the course reviews to choose courses, noting that he had been looking for something similar earlier in the fall. Annika Roise ’18 said she expects reviews to inform her decision, but will also consider her interests.

Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University publish official course reviews. Students at Harvard are currently negotiating with administrators to keep course difficulty scores in their course guide.

“The Critical Review,” a student organization at Brown University, publishes course reviews based on student and instructor questionnaire responses. At Columbia University, individual departments may opt in to open evaluations.

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