College dean’s office begins to update online evaluations

By Jennifer Bussell

After sorting through thousands of backlogged student course evaluations, the College dean’s office has begun http://evaluations., the online database where students can access up to date College course evaluations. As of yesterday, evaluations were available for the collegiate divisions of biology, social sciences, and humanities for winter and spring of 2001.

“We’ve gone through hundreds of courses, thousands of pieces of paper. Things are being updated as we speak,” said Michael R. Jones, associate dean for programs and development in the College, who has supervised the course evaluations update for over a year.

Students are asked to fill out evaluations while the instructor leaves the room during a class session at the end of every College course. Each of the five collegiate divisions has its own evaluation form with a combination of numerical rating and short answer questions to gauge student satisfaction with the instructor, teaching assistants, and course.

While past evaluations were summarized into paragraphs that were printed and available in campus libraries, after the spring quarter of 1999 the evaluations were moved online. However, evaluations for successive quarters were turned in much more quickly than they could be summarized and updated online. Jones decided to begin updating the evaluations with recent quarters. “I’ve decided to start with winter 2001 because that was the first time I had a significant number of machine-readable forms,” Jones said. “I’m going to have to write off a couple of years before that as a loss. I decided it was more important to catch up.”

Many of the evaluation forms currently used are machine-readable and can simply be scanned in for inclusion in the web data. However, most of the forms still contain open-ended questions to which students write responses. “Right now we’re literally typing in students’ comments so that students have access to everything that was said in an unedited way,” Jones said. “We’re not leaving anything out except for the obscenities.”

The update is being supervised by a course evaluations steering group headed by Jones and open to any interested parties. “Everyone involved is most concerned about really trying to make sure that the right knowledge is getting out to the students,” said Scott Grabarski, a third-year in the College and member of the group. “Some students felt the information wasn’t comprehensive enough.”

The dean’s office has hired two full-time temporary clerical employees and two part-time students to finish the job and is planning to hire two more students this month. Two permanent secretarial jobs in the College have been revamped to include working on course evaluations. “It’s a labor-intensive process,” Jones said.

Besides updating the Web site’s content, Jones has overseen its redesign. The new Web site is searchable by faculty name and department, and eventually Jones wants to add a search by course name and number. “My sense is that most people are going to want to search by the name of teachers or core courses,” Jones said.

The Web site displays the totals for any numerical rankings and the complete text of all comments given as question answers. Jones worked with two programmers from the U of C’s Networking Services and Information Technology for over a year to complete the site’s design.

The course evaluations are available only when accessed from computers with University IP addresses, which means that off-campus users are not currently able to view them. According to Jones, the somewhat personal nature of evaluations makes restricting access to University members a wise decision, although the Graduate School of Business’s course evaluations are available on the web without restrictions.

A few other universities utilize a completely online evaluation system, in which students fill out the evaluations themselves through a Web site. Jones discussed this possibility with faculty members. “By passing out a piece of paper actually in the classroom we get more candid and more fresh data…than we would if we said ‘go to a Web site and type it in any time,'” Jones said.

The College has conducted student course evaluations on and off since the late 1960s, when student protests called for more faculty accountability. The process, which was born out of controversy, continues to cause debate in some circles. “The faculty I’ve talked to think the course evaluations are a good thing,” Jones said. “I know there are faculty elsewhere who doubt the usefulness of course evaluations.”

According to Jones, the most common criticism of evaluations is that students’ opinions of courses closely correlate to the grades they receive. Some suggest that grade distributions for faculty members’ courses would provide useful additional information for students considering courses, and the steering group has considered adding grade distributions to the evaluations site. However, such statistics are usually considered private information about both the students and instructor involved with a class.

Many students find course evaluations a useful tool in choosing classes. “It alleviates some of the shopping we have with classes,” Grabarski said. “Students really want to have classes that they’re going to enjoy, and it makes it easier to have other students’ opinions. This gives one way to get those, especially if you don’t know anyone who’s been in the class.”

According to Jones, the textual comments for humanities, biological sciences, and social sciences should be available within a few weeks, with the evaluations for physical sciences and the New Collegiate Division following soon after that. The autumn 2001 evaluations are expected to be added by the end of February. Jones hopes to establish a system allowing the evaluations for the previous quarter to be available midway through the current quarter.