February 4, 2009

Course Evaluations Serve As a Tool in Class Selection

Print More

Many students see course evaluations merely as a tedious end-of-the-semester chore. However, some of Cornell’s colleges are working to turn course evaluations into a tool students can use in considering which classes they should take. Last February, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Faculty Senate voted to make the numerical component of their course evaluations available to the Cornell community.
Pending approval by the Senate today, the website with the course evaluations from the fall semester should be up within the next week. According to Secretary of the Senate Prof. Barbara Crawford, education, CALS is planning on posting the syllabi at the end of the spring semester along with the course evaluations. [img_assist|nid=34724|title=History of Course Evaluations|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“We thought that making the syllabi available might help students choose courses at least as effectively, if not more so, than making the course evaluations available, and the two of them together would be very useful tools,” said Prof. Paul Soloway, nutritional science and chair of the Senate.
Many of the other colleges are either following suit with similar plans or have already instituted similar plans of their own. The College of Engineering has made the numerical component of their course evaluations available to students and faculty since the early 1980s.
“In Fall 2003, engineering became the first college at Cornell to introduce online course evaluations,” David Gries, associate dean of engineering for undergraduate programs, stated in an e-mail. “Now, when evaluations for a semester are completed, engineering posts the numerical summaries on its website, and anyone with a Cornell net ID and password can view them.”
According to Prof. George Boyer, labor economics, director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations’ teaching advisory committee, ILR is now in the process of working out a program that would make some kind of course evaluation available to students. ILR’s current evaluation form is 15 questions long, and the school is considering three possible options for change — making the entire evaluation public, making a subset of some questions from the evaluation available to the students, or working with students to formulate a set of questions that the students would find most useful
“The main catalyst was that students in ILR came to us and said that they would like us to do this. They may or may not have been influenced [by] what CALS has done,” Boyer said. “My guess is within the next year or two [years] there will be some form of evaluation available to the students.”
Similarly, according to the Registrar for the College of Human Ecology Tracey Thompson, the human ecology college is currently working on a process similar to the engineering college that will make the course evaluations available online. Thompson also said that students had come to faculty requesting that human ecology establish a program similar to engineering to help them select their classes.
Students in the School of Hotel Administration also have access to the numerical component of the course evaluations.
Not all colleges have or are considering implementing new policies, however. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peter Lepage stated in an e-mail that the arts college has no plan for a new evaluation policy at the moment.
According to Lepage, several decades ago students produced a pamphlet entitled “Curses Courses” which detailed student impressions of the courses offered at the University. Prof. Stuart Davis, English, also remembers the pamphlet as being produced shortly before 1984 and then sporadically throughout the 1980s. The pamphlet cannot be found on campus anymore, but other universities, including Harvard, have student-produced course evaluations.
Ratemyprofessors.com is the most similar tool current Cornell students have available to them. While many professors strongly disapprove of the website, Lepage stated in an e-mail that the information that students obtain from it is probably more useful than the information they would get from the course evaluations because the evaluations are designed to provide information needed by department chairs and faculty teaching the courses. Lepage suggested that a student project could be to find a way to make ratemyprofessors.com more widely used so that there was a more accurate representation of the student body on the website.
“What I think students are using much more than ratemyprofessors.com is the median grade report,” Boyer said. “I wish it would be taken offline. A survey of grade inflation at Cornell in the last 15 years was recently conducted by three Cornell professors and it’s very clear that students are making large use of the median grade report.”
Boyer said that students are like any good consumers, and more information is always better. However, he said ratemyprofessors.com has extremely biased data, and if the school manages to publish information that the students find useful then it may reduce the use of such websites, Boyer explained.
“There needs to be a dialogue back and forth between students and faculty,” said Prof. Carl Hopkins, neurobiology and behavior. “I think CALS was definitely moving in the right direction to provide that feedback. Now students will be able to share the things that they liked or didn’t like about the courses which will be useful for other students too.”