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Grading the graders

It’s time to re-evaluate our evaluations, if the DSG race for VP of academic affairs is any indication. Both candidates—junior Christopher Chin and sophomore Joe Fore—have included the revision of course evaluations as a part of their platform. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Furthermore, both candidates have announced their desire to hear student input on the issue. So, without further ado, here’s my input on the most important changes we need to make to the course evaluation system at Dear Old Duke.

First, we need to change the timing of the distribution of course evals. Kudos to Chin for having recognized this need. As it stands, we receive course evaluations on the last day of class, at the exact moment when we think we’re finally free. Duke is asking us to thoughtfully weigh the merits of our professors just as we’re trying to calculate how many extra six-packs we can get after we sell back our physics books. It simply isn’t effective.

Instructors should distribute course evaluations at some point mid-way through the semester, when students know the professor and the course well enough to evaluate them, but they aren’t so sick of work that they blow off the opportunity to give feedback.

Timing issues aside, the feedback system itself could use a significant overhaul. Probably the most frustrating part of bookbagging is clicking “Show Course Evaluation” only to discover that the professor who stopped teaching the course last year was wonderful. We could solve this problem by linking course evals to the professor slated to teach the course, not the course number. The worth of a course is closely correlated to the talent of the professor. I can’t understand why we spend so much time evaluating the merits of courses in general. Our course evals should be far more professor-oriented.

Severely truncating the “course” section of evaluations should be a great relief to most students, since filling in a bubble to express how well a course taught you to “analyze ideas” (which, incredibly, merits a category entirely separate from “evaluate ideas” under the current system) can be a struggle. Students never look at these ratings, and I fear for this school if any serious administrative decisions are based on them. If I’m any indication, the bubbles we choose as a student body are largely dependent on whether or not we need to go to the bathroom at the time of the evaluation.

We should retain the “amount of work,” “difficulty of work,” and “stimulation of class” sections. These ratings are actually useful to students shopping for courses. For those students who have other comments they would like to make to the administration, there is always a box provided. Our current evaluation does a fair job of getting feedback on professors. Still, it lacks two vital traits that keep popping up in my talks with other students about why they love certain professors: organization and explanatory ability.

Professors should organize cohesive courses. The ideas behind classes ought to make sense, and the information presented in every lecture ought to hang together thematically, chronologically, or intellectually. Coursework should be relevant to what professors discuss in class. And we, as students, should be given a means of evaluating this aspect of a course and conveying our thoughts to both our fellow students and those higher-ups responsible for the promotion and retention of instructors.

Lastly, good teachers should be able to explain anything. Instructors should have the ability to convey information effectively and field whatever questions come their way. I cannot believe this ability is not explicitly mentioned on the evals. The closest we have is a hopelessly vague “quality of instruction,” which may be useful in summing up general feelings about a professor, but fails to provide any specific information about failings. This ambiguity must be amended.

The course evaluation system has tremendous potential to improve the undergraduate experience, and both candidates for VP of academic affairs want our opinions. Like most local politics, DSG races are important because the issues are straightforward and the changes we can effect as community members are so significant. Whoever wins, it’s up to us to give them the input they need.

John Miller is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Wednesday.



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