How does Hopkins use course evaluations?

By SIRI TUMMALA | December 8, 2016

As students finish finals, the Office of the Registrar begins to sift through thousands of course evaluation surveys.

While some students neglect to thoroughly fill them out, course evaluation can make or break a course or a faculty member’s reputation.

The evaluations are not mandatory, but students are encouraged to fill them out so that they may view their final grades as soon as they are released.

Students rate their courses on characteristics such as overall quality, teacher effectiveness and workload.

They can also write more detailed observations and suggest improvements in the comment section.

Vice Dean for Education Ed Scheinerman of the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE) and Professor Steven David of political science helped to create the online course evaluation system in 2011.

“We wanted a short survey because we really want students to fill these things out,” Scheinerman said. “There is a set group of questions that go to every course, and then departments and professors can add a few custom questions as well.”

Even though the feedback is anonymous, Scheinerman believes that students are taking the evaluations seriously.

“Occasionally we get a few snarky comments, but what we find most useful is when we read the comments and students have concrete suggestions,” Scheinerman said.

Jeeva Jagabandhu, a sophomore, contradicted Scheinerman’s point of view, noting how he personally does not prioritize filling out the evaluations.

“I put in very little to no effort writing them unless I am really passionately against a class or if a class caused me to have a very strong stance,” he said. “When I am actually putting in the effort into writing them, the factors I consider are usually the professor and definitely the course work — whether it’s a lot or a little.”

Scheinerman touched on the significant impact the course evaluations have on faculty.

“I have seen changes in faculty as a result of these comments,” he said. “Some of our department chairs have reassigned faculty on the basis of these evaluations.”

Scott Spencer, the director of Information Technology and Application Development in the Office of the Registrar, commented on the anonymity of the evaluations.

“The students only see the summarized version, but faculty members can see the individual comments,” Spencer said. “They don’t know who left the comment, but they can see all of them.”

Scheinerman noted how this anonymity sometimes leads to comments that are rude to professors.

“Most students are very thoughtful, but we get a few that write some nasty and very inappropriate comments,” he said. “Those turn out to be a lot more hurtful than you can imagine. I have had professors very upset by what students have written, some of it misogynistic and some of it racist.”

He urged students to consider their evaluations carefully.

“We don’t want to restrict what people want to say. These things are held in confidence, but be thoughtful that we read these things in care,” Scheinerman said. “If you have some criticism, by all means criticize but be specific about what the problem is and your suggestions for improvement. But personal attacks have no place here.”

Scheinerman pointed out from the evaluations, professors of low-rated classes are directed to other campus resources to improve.

“We have a group on campus called the Center for Education Resources housed up in the library,” he said. “We often ask professors who are struggling to go and use their services to improve their teaching.”

Scheinerman recounted how some of these suggestions are quick solutions for professors.

“We once had a bunch of students complain that the professor didn’t speak loudly enough, so we got that professor a microphone system to work in the classroom,” he said. “There are sometimes easy fixes. There are also better interventions to help professors become more organized.”

Christopher Consolino, a Ph.D. student in the History Department and a teacher, explained his experiences reading course evaluations.

“The evaluations that I really paid attention to were the ones where the students rated me low on some things but then had positive things to say about the course, or students who rated me highly but then put in critiques,” he said. “I took those a little more seriously because sometimes the [evaluation’s] questions are difficult just through that number system. It’s very difficult to get a ‘what was I doing right, and what was I not doing right.’”

After the course evaluations are submitted online, the staff in the Office of the Registrar average the course ratings and summarizes the comments, which are then released early the following semester.

Ashlie Brown, the Information Analyst Applications Resource Manager in the Office of the Registrar, explained the process of reading through the evaluations.

“We go through each evaluation, each course individually,” she said. “We read through the comments, and we go from there. It is line-by-line of each student’s response and coming up with a summary that way. It takes about a couple of months to go through all of the evaluations.”

Brown commented upon the overall effectiveness of course evaluations.

“I think [evaluations] are pretty helpful. I think they give a very real look in terms of what the students are experiencing in the classroom, how the professors are actually performing, and how effective the coursework and materials are for each individual course,” Brown said. “Sometimes they can be too honest, but overall it’s helpful.”

Brown also pointed out a pattern between the course evaluations submitted by students of WSE and students of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS).

“I definitely think the [WSE] students are a little bit more in-depth and more concise in terms of what their responses are while students in [KSAS] provide a general overview,” she said.

Mira Sobhy, a junior, commented on how she uses course evaluations.

“I think course evaluations are very helpful because it allows me to see the classes that are and are not rated well,” he said.

Sobhy said that she looks at the course holistically when evaluating it and not just at the professor.

“Course evaluations are very good at telling you how the course is not just the professor,” she said. “I would never give a professor a bad rating just because of my inability to do well in a certain class.”

Roshni Ahmed, a junior majoring in International Studies and Sociology, looks at a variety of courses when selecting her courses.

“I usually look at the ratings. I have very high standards, so I try to look at 4 and above,” she said. “I use that plus RateMyProfessor because I think a class really depends on who the teacher is to make it interesting.”

On the other hand, junior Anishka Agarwal pointed out that she prefers other sources when deciding to take a course.

“To be honest, I don’t actually reference them when looking at future classes,” she said. “I end up using RateMyProfessor and other outside of Hopkins affiliation sites or just word of mouth and talking to people. It is more convenient, and I personally value the opinion of someone I know personally more so than reading through a summary.”

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