November 12, 2007

Course Evaluations Remain Inaccessible

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At the end of each semester, course evaluations ask students to reflect on their courses, professors and workload. Fairly comprehensive, evaluations are a valuable resource to instructors — but who else should have access to them?
The debate is a divisive one, raising concerns about both faculty privacy and the availability of evaluations to Cornell students.
Currently, course instructors and department heads can access evaluations, as can students in the Hotel School and the College of Engineering. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is in the process of reassessing its policy on the matter.
On Nov. 7, the CALS Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of making course evaluations available to the dean and associate deans in the College, according to chair of the CALS Faculty Senate Dennis Miller. In February, they will vote on whether to make them public to students as well.
“It is very important to make course evaluation available to students,” said student-elected trustee Mao Ye grad, who, along with fellow student-elected trustee Kate Duch ’09, presented the idea to Miller and the Senate. “As students, we can determine the level of difficulty of a course by looking at the textbooks. We don’t know how much time instructors spend of students and how receptive they are to student needs.”
Ye and Duch identified several benefits to declassifying evaluations in their presentation, including incentives for students to fill out evaluations, recognition of excellent teaching and access to information that will help students gain the most from their courses.
Making them public will also lead to a decrease in the use of, a web site that provides often incomplete or biased information about professors, they said. Although it is widely used by students, the comments represent a small and potentially biased sample of student opinion.
The two student-elected trustees stressed that many of the concerns about publishing course evaluations are misconceptions. One claim is that students are too immature to make consistent judgments about instructors. Another is that most student rating schemes are nothing more than a popularity contest. Both, they said, are false.
Some faculty said they recognize the advantages of giving students access to course evaluations.
“I am really an advocate of open course evaluations,” said Dean of the University Faculty Charles Walcott Ph.D ’59.
Still, Walcott expressed some concern about making them public.
“I can also understand why faculty are nervous about it. Particularly beginning faculty may be insecure about the fact that fellow faculty and students can see it,” he said.
Some argue that the potential for negative impact on faculty outweighs the positive impact it will have for students. Possible consequences include higher enrollment in majors with lighter workloads and reduced and reduced enrollment in electives with heavier workloads.
“I don’t believe that that’s the case — students know enough to know that an easy course isn’t necessarily the best course,” said Prof. Barbara Ahner, biology and environmental engineering. “It’s important for students to have more information on which to base course selection.”
Additional concerns include a negative impact on tenure and promotion cases, a negative impact on faculty recruiting and a violation of privacy.
According to Prof. Janice Thies, crop and soil sciences, the Committee for Teaching and Learning had agreed in the past that evaluations were meant to promote the development of professors, and not to provide chairs and deans “with fuel for punitive actions” or promote course shopping by students.
“It surprises and appalls me that there appears to be no institutional memory of these discussions or anyone willing to step up and review these earlier concerns and decisions,” Thies stated in an e-mail.
In an effort to reach a happy medium, some have proposed additional measures. Prof. Ross Brann, near eastern studies, recommended publishing “qualitative” data about instructor performance and not just “quantitative” data about workloads to help students make more informed decisions and to prevent those who may choose based on course load. Walcott said that there is a need for faculty evaluations in addition to ensure that instructors do not just reduce the amount of “substance.” Miller suggested publishing a course syllabus, but noted that the idea was not “mutually exclusive.”

Clarification:“Course Evaluations Remain Inaccessible” stated that students in the College of Engineering can see course evaluations. All Cornell people, including students, faculty and staff, can see the quantitative summaries of evaluations of engineering courses.