February 7, 2008

CALS Faculty Senate Votes To Release Course Evals

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Rather than just having to rely on RateMyProfessors.com, students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences will soon have a better way of getting the lowdown on professors and courses. Yesterday, the CALS Faculty Senate voted to make course evaluations open to the Cornell community — including its students — by a vote of 17-2.
The evaluations will consist of students’ numerical ratings and written comments.
Prof. Peter Davies, plant biology, explained the importance of giving students access to comments as well as numbers.
“The two purposes of this are, one, to give students some guidance as to which courses they should pick, and, two, to defeat RateMyProfessors.com,” he said.
Students are also in favor of allowing students to view other students’ comments.[img_assist|nid=27453|title=Evaluate this|desc=Members of the CALS Faculty Senate debate whether to make course evaluations open to students at their meeting yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“As a student, I really don’t want to see just numbers. I want to see more detailed comments on the course, from the students who have previously taken the course, so I can have a better understanding and make a better decision,” Student Assembly Rep. Samantha Dong ’11 said.
Members debated how students’ comments should be handled.
Although some members felt that comments that were rude or unconstructive should be edited out, the Senate was able to reach a compromise, deciding to separate comments intended for students and just for professors.
Comments intended solely for the professor will have a separate area on the evaluation form and will remain classified. The resolution also excludes evaluations for professors teaching a course for the first time from being made public.
“The feeling was that there were personal comments that were intended for the faculty member and not for general distribution, and that some of the comments were simply mean-spirited or not appropriate for publishing,” said Prof. Carl Hopkins, neurobiology and behavior.
However, some senate members, like Prof. Ross MacIntyre, molecular biology and genetics, were wary of editing student comments. “That smacks of censorship to me,” he said, in response to dividing students’ comments.
A few professors opposed declassifying evaluations, such as Prof. Olena Vatamaniuk, crop and soil sciences.
“Pretty much everybody in my department said that student evaluation forms were designed to promote and improve teaching. Then, the question is ‘How will making these forms public serve this purpose?’” she said.
The resolution’s exemption of evaluations of new professors was widely accepted.
Prof. Barbara Crawford, education, suggested the provision. “They’re trying things out, and to have that public could be detrimental for them personally,” she said. “I’ve talked to untenured faculty, and they say that for the first year, they don’t know how this is going to go. The second year, they’re so much better based on the feedback. I’m just removing the added pressure and public display the first year, where the stakes are high.”
The resolution was drafted in 2006 as part of the original platform of student-elected trustee Mao Ye grad. Starting in October, Ye and the other student-elected trustee, Kate Duch ’09 worked on the getting the proposal to the CALS Faculty Senate.
At the last senate meeting in November, they were able to get the part of the proposal that allowed CALS deans and associate deans to see the course evaluations passed.
According to Ye, the “resolution was divided in two, because the whole thing alone would have been huge progress” and therefore harder to get passed, he said.
Ye said he hopes that this resolution will galvanize other colleges into taking similar actions. Currently, only the College of Engineering and the School of Hotel Administration release data from course evaluations, though the Hotel Administration evaluations are only available upon request, according to Ye.
“This is a college responsibility. The colleges are the ones that will therefore determine whether the evaluations are to be made public or not,” said Dean of University Faculty Charles Walcott Ph.D. ’59, who, though not part of the CALS Faculty Senate, was “very much in favor of making course evaluations public.”
The senate also approved two other resolutions yesterday. One was to revise the current course evaluation forms. Specifically, it proposed removing negatively-worded questions and reverse coding, a survey technique in which numerical ratings increase in the reverse order of what the student would expect from the question.
The other resolution the senate passed involved allowing non-life science majors to fulfill their distribution requirements with courses that focus more on the real-world applications of science. More courses addressing “these issues” will be added in the future.