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Jared Lafer '11: The course evaluation responsibility

A kitten dies every time you don't fill out a course evaluation. 

Indeed, there's a lot riding on our course evaluations (which shall henceforth refer both to departmental evaluations and the Critical Review unless otherwise noted).

As a recent editorial in The Herald ("Teaching and tenure," Sept. 28) explained, department evaluations are used to provide input into decisions about tenure, and the tenure process makes or breaks careers.

Critical Review evaluations are used by students to make class selections, and so by evaluating classes, we help students shape their educations.

Course evaluations provide professors with feedback about their classes and their teaching, which is beneficial to future students and professors alike.

With all these considerations, filling out course evaluations thoughtfully is an important responsibility. 

But we generally don't live up to this responsibility. I've seen students spend five minutes working on evaluations, trying to pass off single sentences and inappropriate N/As as responses, and I'm sure you have too. I concede that there are some students who ostensibly evaluate well, but they're undoubtedly in the minority. 

So why are we negligent? The answer to this question is complicated, but (as usual) where better to begin than with the administration?

The administration does not do a good job — or any job at all — stressing course evaluations. Indeed, when I first came to Brown I had absolutely no idea what a course evaluation was, let alone what was expected of me in filling them out.

The only information Brown has about evaluations is on the Dean of the College Web site, but it is directed towards faculty. There's no general information about the significance of course evaluations or anything relevant to students. Thus we are negligent in part because we are ignorant.

Then there's the faculty, which pays short shrift to course evaluations in several ways. First, professors seldom encourage us to course evaluate thoughtfully in class, which is surprising given how much they can benefit from them. A sentence, even a word, would do.

Second, even if they did encourage us, we couldn't evaluate meaningfully even if we wanted to. Professors often give students too little time to do justice to an entire semester's worth of study. In my experience, professors tend to allot 10 minutes on the last day of class to course evaluations. I've heard a similar number quoted by others. This is not nearly enough time for us to thoughtfully address every question.

This short time period is explicable — professors probably prefer to maximize class time, and so only a small amount of time is slotted for evaluations. But is it worth it to try and maximize class time on the last day if it means neglecting this important responsibility? I think not.

Of course, these "efficient" professors aren't the worst of them. Some professors don't distribute course evaluations at all. This is more common with the Critical Review since it's not mandatory, but in any case these professors should be sent to the stocks and vegetabled.

Course evaluations impact all members of the Brown community, and so professors have a duty to distribute them in the same vein that students have a duty to complete them. I can at least rationalize only partially living up to one's responsibility, but completely shirking it is inexcusable. Thus we are negligent because it's imposed upon us.

Students are to blame as well. Aside from simply not caring, out of what I'll assume is ignorance, students suffer from a compulsion to be what economists call "free riders."
At Brown, course evaluations are a public good. This good is supplied by the students because it benefits them to do so. However, since course evaluations are not "excludable," a student acting in his or her self-interest would be incentivized not to contribute. Students gain from the good regardless of whether they contribute or not, and so students tend not to fill out course evaluations, or at least to the best of their abilities. Thus, we are negligent because of our psychology.

So how do we compel everyone to take course evaluations more seriously? The first step is to make people aware of the importance of course evaluations, which I intend this column to do in part, but I hope ultimately becomes an institutional endeavor.

We should then foster that awareness by allowing students to fill out evaluations online after the last class. This would provide them with the necessary time to really think about the semester and write more detailed and useful evaluations.

Finally, to combat the free rider problem, we should establish a disincentive for not contributing. Brown should refuse to release the grades for students who do a lackluster job evaluating. If a professor feels too little thought was put into an evaluation, the University should contact the relevant student and ask him or her to revise it. Of course, evaluations are anonymous, so the professor would not know the name of the student, which avoids ethical complications.

So, in conclusion, the next time you encounter a course evaluation, think about the kittens.

Jared Lafer '11 is a philosophy concentrator from Manhattan.  He can be reached at jared_lafer at brown.edu  




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