Committee to reassess course evaluations

Sept. 28, 2012, 12:17 a.m.

A committee has been appointed to revise the course evaluation process and will aim to submit a proposal for altering course evaluations in the spring of 2013.

The committee comes as a response to the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford report, which read, “despite some improvements, the [course] evaluation process still leaves much to be desired.”

For spring quarter 2012, 61.7 percent of instructors and 5.8 percent of students viewed the results of course evaluations. The numbers are even worse when compared to previous quarters; 76.5 percent of faculty and 14 percent of students viewed course evaluation results in fall 2010.

However, senior associate registrar Sharon Svelten said that students’ response rate is still very high. Students completed approximately 80 percent of the 54,000 possible course evaluations and 45,000 possible section evaluations.

“It does seem as though students are not answering the open-ended comments as much as they used to,” Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Michele Marincovich said.

Stanford is currently pursuing a partnership with ClassOwl, a student-run company, to provide the results of course evaluations in a more user-friendly format. ClassOwl will be able to display internal University data that websites such as CourseRank do not have access to.

“You’re going to be getting 100 percent of the data,” ClassOwl Operations and Marketing Director Julienne Lam ’13 said. “It helps [students] weed out information.”

Svelten said that the registrar’s office thinks it is very important for students to be able to see the course evaluation information in a way that will make reading and understanding the data easiest for the student.

“If we provide more accurate representations of what’s actually going on in the classes, how people feel about the content, the direction of the course, the overall grade of the course, how they evaluate their professors, then students will have more incentive to put in time and effort,” Lam said. “The way they are structured is not very compelling to be accurate because students are submitting them at the end of the quarter and so they …no longer care about the class.”

The last major change in the course evaluation system was seven years ago, when the University transferred course evaluation administration from a paper form to the current online version

“I think the important thing is that students should realize that teaching evaluations are taken very seriously and are an important part of big decisions like granting tenure or promotion,” Marincovich said.

Course evaluations are considered alongside letters from undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that either took a class from or were supervised by the professor, according to Provost John Etchemendy.

“When a faculty member comes up for reappointment or tenure, the department collects together a substantial amount of evidence about the quality of their classroom teaching and mentoring of graduate students,” Etchemendy wrote in an email to The Daily.

Etchemendy said departments consider limitations of the course evaluations system when making decisions.

“Obviously, if everyone loves the course but also rates it as extremely easy, the people reading the promotion file take that into account,” he said.

Economics Department chair Jon Levin, however, expressed more concern that evaluations are not 100 percent dependable, saying that small classes such as Introductory Seminars will often have higher course evaluations than large lecture classes.

Others find the reports downright harmful. English Department chair Gavin Jones said that his department found the University course evaluations to be, on the whole, inadequate and, sometimes, thoughtless and hurtful to faculty.

“We developed a new course evaluation,” Jones said. “We really felt in our department that the standard course evaluation was not detailed enough and did not necessarily map itself onto the learning goals that we have in English, so we generated our own evaluations to get into the mechanics of how our course was being taught.”

However, Jones said that his department often finds useful comments in student course evaluations.

“Particularly the qualitative comments can really help me see some weak points in a course and realize a glitch here or there,” Jones said.

Chemistry Department chair W.B. Moerner said that his department frequently takes student comments from course evaluations into account.

“Sometimes students say, ‘We would like more practice problems,’ so we prepare more practice problems with solutions.”

Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies, will chair the course evaluation committee.

“I hope the committee will develop a form that can meet two goals: provide better feedback to instructors on how students are learning in their classes, while also providing students with an opportunity to engage in thoughtful reflection on their own learning experience,” Berman wrote in an email to The Daily.

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