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Committee pilots new course rating process

Kathleen McDonnell | Friday, April 28, 2006

It’s crunch time. Your DART time is here, but the final spot for your first choice class was just filled. Now it’s time to make the decision – do you pull up the vague course description in the undergraduate bulletin, or the heavily slanted opinions in NDToday.com’s teacher ratings?

Neither – at least at some point in the near future. Thanks to the efforts of the Committee for Better Informing Course Selection, Notre Dame students will one day have more detailed course information at their fingertips. Vice President and Associate Provost Dennis Jacobs heads the joint student, faculty and administrator committee working to give students what he deemed a “richer description” of available courses before registering.

“We want to give students more detailed information – what the course’s intention is, learning goals, modes of learning,” Jacobs said. “To give students a much clearer picture about what they might be considering.”

Currently, students compile information from the course handbook, undergraduate bulletins or department Web sites alongside external sources like NDToday.com. But senior Vijay Ramanan, the student chair of the committee, said the information these sources provide “is sometimes very good and in other situations quite spotty.”

While Web sites may be outdated and descriptions often short, teacher evaluations on NDToday.com face the problem containing only a few, strong, variable opinions, he explained.

“The open ended text boxes tend to be forums for rants for or against an instructor, rather than an objective evaluation of the learning environment in a class, while the multiple choice questions are geared towards a crude numeric identification of ‘easy courses,'” Ramanan said.

Last week the Academic Council approved a process that “will unfold over time,” Jacobs said, giving students a voice by including five additional questions to the teacher course evaluation (TCE) form. The administration currently uses TCEs to make personnel decisions, meaning students are not allowed to view the results.

The results of the additional five questions, however, will be part of a new, comprehensive description for students, and will not be used by the University as part of faculty evaluations.

“The responses would be represented in a way the students could see if other students were engaged in the course,” Jacobs said.

Between 500 and 1,000 students are piloting versions of these questions this spring, Jacobs said. Students are asked to rate, on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree, statements such as “the assignments and activities of this course promoted my learning in this area,” “I felt engaged in this course,” and “the instructor was accessible to students outside of class time.” The results are printed on bar graphs, allowing students to view the full range of responses.

Both students and instructors will benefit from this information, Ramanan said.

“Students who have an idea of the course’s character ahead of the start of classes will be better prepared to engage in the kind of thinking that the instructor wants to promote,” he said. “As such, I think that learning environments will benefit from this kind of resource, and that will in turn encourage the participation of students and faculty in providing information for this resource.”

Information on the forms is also gathered from the instructor and registrar. The instructor answers questions about primary learning goals, use of class time, type of assignments, role of teaching assistants and type of reading materials. The registrar provides information on class size, college and year of students and number of times the class has been taught in recent years.

The committee envisions students logging into this resource with a NetID and password, Ramanan said.

Both the Student Senate and the Academic Council accepted the committee’s proposal this spring. But because its implementation requires a number of campus offices – the office of information and technology, the registrars, institutional research, the provost office – Jacobs could not set a date when the information will be available.

“I don’t want to promise a particular timeline, but we’re trying to put it in effect as quickly as it can,” he said.

Jacobs, Ramanan and others have been formulating this project since January and both hope to see the fruits of their work in the near future. Ramanan praised the cooperation of the committee throughout the project.

“Everyone has kept an open mind and has provided a unique perspective,” he said. “This has helped us to create a resource that provides a comprehensive picture of the features of a course for students, but does so in a way that will ultimately benefit both teaching and learning.”