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Course evaluations revamped after complaints about old system

In response to widespread dissatisfaction with student course evaluations, the University will launch a new evaluation form at the end of fall quarter.

These new evaluations are the product of a multi-year process led by the Course Evaluation Committee (CEC). While designing the new forms, this committee looked at many different sources, including past survey results, scholarly literature and comments from hundreds of undergraduates organized into focus groups at the Behavioral Lab at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The main purpose of the new forms is to improve teaching effectiveness, according to CEC Chairman Russell Berman. 

These shouldn’t be about a popularity contest: ‘do I like this professor personally?’” Berman said. “It’s ‘does the course work for students?’”

In the 2010-2011 course evaluations, 35 percent of students fell into “straight-line responding,” in which they provided the same answer for every question on the page. To counter this, the CEC designed the new evaluations not only to make this kind of response impossible, but also to decrease the boredom that causes such responses.

The survey was reduced from 36 discrete parts to 12. Faculty are also able to customize the form to their class by entering in specific course learning goals and up to six additional questions three of which are open-ended, and three of which are closed-ended.

Instead of following the old “Excellent, Very Good… Poor” method of response, the closed-ended questions will incorporate “construct-specific” answer choices that are specific to what the question is asking.

For example, the question “How organized was the course?” has the answer set of “Extremely organized, Very organized… Not organized at all.” These styles of answer sets, along with mixing answer sets on a question-to-question basis, have been shown through research to improve the quality of survey responses.

The new form will also incorporate the open-ended question “What would you like to say about this course to a student who is considering taking it in the future?” which will be made viewable to students considering the course.

This qualitative review of courses was designed to provide a more reliable alternative to websites such as RateMyProfessors.com. Unlike commercial websites, where anyone can write a review for any course, the reviews from Stanford’s course evaluations are guaranteed to be from Stanford students who have completed the course.

CEC member and professor of political science Jon Krosnick commented that these publicized qualitative responses not only give students valuable information to consideration while choosing courses, but also encourage them to fill out the evaluations.

“It’s kind of like paying it forward. You are going to give information based on your experience so that other students will benefit the way you did from exactly this information,” said Krosnick.

In fact, course evaluations at Stanford were invented by students. According to the CEC report, the history of course evaluations dates back to the late 1950s when a student publication called “The Scratch Sheet” published qualitative descriptions of courses. Only later did faculty take action to adopt these student-initiated evaluations into their teaching.

After years of research, the CEC hopes the new evaluations will improve both student impact on academic affairs and undergraduate teaching as a whole.

“We are very hopeful that students will say, ‘Wow, I had no idea. It’s really cool that the university cares and put this effort into it, and that they want to see our views on courses. It’s not going to take that long. I’m going to do it,’” Krosnick said.

 

Contact Aulden Foltz at afoltz ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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