SA pushes more departments to release professor ratings

Media Credit: Jamie Finkelstein | Hatchet Photographer
Student Association Sen. Varsha Sundararaman, ESIA-U, wants more professors to release the results of their course evaluations to help students make decisions about what classes to take.

Student leaders are pushing to see how their classmates are rating professors’ performances in the classrooms – but administrators are balking at publicly releasing reviews until more departments can raise response rates online.

By publishing the evaluation scores online, members of the Student Association’s academic affairs committee say it will be easier for students to pick courses and professors. They said they hope to increase participation in online course evaluations to convince more departments to open up their data.

Sen. Varsha Sundararaman, ESIA-U, said senators have spent the last few weeks meeting with administrators and urging them to request that departments publish evaluation results. She said it would be more productive for GW to publish course evaluations than leaving students to use services like RateMyProfessors.com.

Still, she said academic leaders like Forrest Maltzman, senior vice provost for academic affairs and planning, and Cheryl Beil, associate vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said most faculty would want higher response rates from students before publishing faculty ratings so they have a larger sample size.

“They think by improving response rates, professors will be more willing to release the evaluations,” Sundararaman said.

But evaluations completed with pen and paper would likely not be released. Several professors say they prefer to carve out class time to collect evaluations in person because they see more responses – which tend to also be more complete.

Paul Wahlbeck, chair of the political science department, said more students will fill out evaluations in class than log on to fill out the form later.

“We do get very high response rates compared to the online version with the in-class evaluation, and since we value the feedback of our students, we have always done the in-class, and we will continue to do so,” he said.

Last spring, 61 percent of students filled out course evaluations online, according to data from the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment. This fall, 86 out of 120 subject areas use the online evaluations.

Sundararaman said committee members will meet with department heads next semester to urge them to publish data on courses and professors. The committee hoped to push for the release of evaluations to align GW with its peer schools and increase transparency.

At New York University, administrators provide a course evaluation guide that rates classes on a numerical scale, but does not include the specific comments made about professors.

“We want to make this a vehicle for students to guide students to the right classes,” Sundararaman said.

Maltzman said administrators need to find ways to incorporate more open-ended questions into the evaluations that would be published.

Some faculty agreed that publishing open-ended questions would be more beneficial than publishing responses to questions on a one-to-five scale. “I’d like to see less emphasis on the numbers and the average scores, and more on the open responses because they represent a more thoughtful approach to evaluations,” physics professor Mark Reeves said.

David Rain, an associate professor of geography and international affairs, said not publishing the evaluations each semester put their results in an “information vacuum,” giving them minimal use.

Faculty must submit their evaluations as part of a portfolio when applying for tenure. Department chairs also use them to determine who should teach certain classes and promotions.

Publishing the results could hurt how truthful students are when filling them out, though, Rain said, because students might start to evaluate faculty based on the difficulty of their classes, rather than judging the teaching and presentation of the course as evaluations are designed to do.

Doug Guthrie, former dean of the School of Business, called for releasing teaching evaluations to raise the caliber of teaching at the school and the school’s ranking, in a 2011 report obtained by The Hatchet.

The GW Law School and the computer science department publish teacher evaluations regularly, releasing both qualitative and quantitative reports for classes and faculty.

-Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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