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Free the Course Evaluations

Here’s a good first step that Phil can make, one that would signal his commitment to improving undergraduate academics: open up the College’s official course evaluations, the ones that all students complete at the end of each term. Right now, by repeated faculty vote, this information is only available to professors. John Strauss brought this idea up in the Review recently. Good for him.

The literature in education shows that even grade school students effectively identify high-quality teachers. And when the Review, despite what you may think of its politics, lists the fourteen best teachers at the College, the professors chosen are hardly among the superficially charismatic or the easiest graders on the faculty (Meir Kohn? Pamela Crossley?). Surprising as it may seem at times, most students are in Hanover to get an education, and they take courses from people who make a serious effort to teach them something. As we have previously reported, on two occasions the Econ department decided as a group to respond to ever-increasing enrollments by toughening up the workload in all of its offerings. The result? Not what these specialists in incentives expected: enrollments went up even more.

So why the resistance to publishing the detailed course evaluations that the College systematically gathers? After all, students hunger for this information. And the College’s best profs certainly would not oppose being noted for their excellence.

In fact, only professors who would be rated poorly in these evaluations feel themselves threatened by a change in policy.

Are weak profs the people that we want to protect at the College? Should their interests be guiding policy? I’d think that the converse should be true. To talk incentives again, professors who do not score highly in evaluations have an obvious course of action to take in response: improve their teaching. Let’s ramp up the pressure on these folks, rather than allowing mediocre professors to cover up their poor performance because their negative reviews are not open to student scrutiny.

This subject should be on the agenda of the next faculty meeting. Phil can send a strong signal by giving students access to evaluations, and more importantly, by doing so, he can take a serious step toward improving the College.

Addendum: Word has filtered back to Dartblog that sharing course evaluation information with students is currently a subject of interest to Phil Hanlon. Let’s hope that common sense and students’ interests carry the day.

Addendum: Dartblog writer Brian Solomon ‘11 took the same position in a column in The D on Janaury 20, 2011.

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