February 28, 2008

Colleges Discuss Showing Course Evals to Students

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The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently changed its policy regarding course evaluations, enabling both the numerical and written parts of the course evaluations in CALS to be made public. However, many of the deans at other colleges are hesitant to create the same level of transparency with regard to course evaluation policies.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Lepage is worried that the evaluations would serve too many purposes if made public.
“Faculty members are using them to get feedback on the course, details of the course structure, whether the textbook works, and department chairs are using them to keep an eye on the quality of the teaching,” said Lepage, adding that this would hinder their usefulness to students.
Lepage suggested that instead, students should start an evaluation process themselves. In the 1980s, students came out with a booklet called Curses Courses which provided a review of courses for the students, by the students. Curses Courses only lasted a few years, but Lepage believes that an initiative on the students’ part would work better now because of the ease of electronic distribution.
Representatives from most of the colleges agreed that one of the reasons they had not yet made the evaluations public was that students’ written comments were very derogatory.
“We have a lot of people who use very colorful language to describe what their feelings of a particular professor are,” said Steve Carvell, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Hotel Administration.
To censor inappropriate written comments while still making the evaluations somewhat accessible, the numerical parts of the evaluation are available for students to see in the Hotel School and the College of Engineering.
“The faculty voted in the 1980s that anybody at Cornell can see the numerical parts [of the evaluations],” said Prof. David Gries, associate dean of engineering.
In the School of Hotel Administration, the students have to request the course evaluation numbers at Nestlé library, whereas in the College of Engineering, the course evaluation numbers are available online through the same website that students use to submit their evaluations.
“I don’t like the idea of making the open-ended answers public. Number one, they have always meant to be developmental [and] not evaluative. Number two, some of them are rather rude, and I think could almost be libelous,” said Prof. George Boyer, director of teaching of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Boyer said he feels that by making course evaluations public, the colleges themselves turn into something akin to ratemyproffessors.com, a website on which students can anonymously review professors. While Boyer noted that the website is entertaining to read, it is not very productive.
Many professors agree that course evaluations allow them to trace the progress of courses with the overall goal of improving the quality of teaching. They are also used by several of the colleges in tenure and promotion cases.
All of the colleges have the option of electronic course evaluations, but the use of the electronic course evaluations is not mandatory in all of the colleges.
According to Carvell, evaluations matter a great deal, and oftentimes students do not participate at the level that they should. Carvell has tried to encourage students to realize the importance of the evaluations and write constructive critiques, often by sending poems and raps about them to the entire Hotel School listserve in order to get students’ attention.
The other colleges will watch CALS’s new policy as it is put into action, looking at what effects it will have on students and faculty. For most of the colleges, if the faculty members decide that public evaluations are something they want, they will have to propose and then vote on making them public.
Carole Bisogni, associate dean for the College of Human Ecology said, “I think [people] have raised important issues as to why the evaluations should be made public. I anticipate that we’ll be discussing these issues as we go forward into the semester.”