Course evaluations should be public

We all know the last-day-of-class routine: Review for the final exam, hand in any last assignments and fill out a course evaluation form. Because students are distracted with wrapping up a semester, they may not think about where those evaluations go or what happens to them.

But course evaluations are something that every student has to fill out and hand in multiple times throughout their time at GW, so it’s important that we know how the evaluations are reviewed and how effective they are.

Course evaluations have the potential to provide valuable information to fellow students, faculty and administrators. Students can let other students know what they enjoyed – or didn’t enjoy – about a class or professor. Professors can see in what areas they’re performing well and how they can improve. And deans and department chairs can get a more accurate picture of how well a department is teaching students.

Although course evaluations’ results could be helpful, it seems like GW isn’t using them to their full potential. To make evaluations more effective, GW should create a new course evaluation method in which parts of the results are available for all students to read, while other parts can only be read by professors and administrators.

GW isn’t the only university that hasn’t yet perfected a course evaluation method. Many students and faculty members might question if there’s any use to evaluations at all. But that isn’t the case at every university. Other universities have figured out how to make their course evaluations more useful. Boston College separates evaluations so that some information is made available to everyone, including students, while other information only goes to instructors, department chair or deans. This method is effective and fair because it clears up who gets to see which parts of the evaluations and how results will be used, which allows students to write for particular audiences and keep some of their feedback private.

The computer science department has made parts of their course evaluation results public in the past. But this should be done on a larger scale and with more qualitative data throughout the University’s departments. The computer science department, which compiled and condensed course evaluations for all the department’s courses and made them easily viewable from their site, is a great example to follow, since the information is convenient and useful for students considering certain classes or professors.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said in an email that officials are “supportive of efforts to increase transparency” by making course evaluation results public.

“If course evaluations are made publicly available, we hope they would help students select courses relative to their own learning style,” Csellar said.

Departments should make their evaluation results public as soon as possible, and, eventually, all departments should be required to.

Students use other programs and websites, namely Rate My Professor, to find out more about past students’ experiences in a class or with a professor. But officials should do what they can to aid in providing students and faculty with additional information they can use to choose courses and improve teaching styles.

There are certain risks that come with modifying the structure of course evaluations. If GW were to make the evaluations public – or at least some of the evaluations public – there is a chance that students might make inappropriate comments about a professor’s’ race, gender or accent. And while the University might choose to filter some comments based on these potential issues, it is still important that students can give feedback that may seem harsh, because it will help other students deciding to take a class. If a professor has a strong accent that the majority of student evaluations indicate inhibits their learning experiences, potential students should know that. Maybe even more importantly, officials and department heads should know if their professors are able to easily communicate with their students. That’s why it would be beneficial for course evaluations to have parts that are open to the public and others that are aimed at administrators.

But until students know how important, or unimportant, these evaluations are to the University, it’s likely that not much will change. Students don’t have an incentive to put effort into thoughtful evaluations if they don’t think they are read or taken seriously. Officials need to be more transparent on how evaluations are used and who reviews them.

It’s impossible to say how effective course evaluations are at any university. But it’s in GW’s best interest to be ahead of the curve and modify course evaluations to be more qualitative, public and beneficial for students, faculty and administrators.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.

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