The Culprit of Course Evaluations

Course evaluations set an unhealthy expectation for the amount of time students should spend on their work.

By Patrick Lou

As College students wrap up their finals and prepare to leave for the summer, there’s one thing many of us have left to do: course evaluations. Those students who haven't simply opted out of all of their evaluations this year may have realized that the course evaluation form has changed significantly from that of previous years. For the most part, the questions have shifted from ones that prompt students to leave strictly positive or negative feedback on their experience in a course to ones that aim to elicit more thoughtful feedback on means of course improvement. It’s not clear whether one approach is better than the other. There is, however, a question on the new evaluation form that should be universally troubling: “How many hours per week outside of attending required sessions did you spend on this course?”

The question seems innocuous enough. It’s certainly a valid question to ask, as the responses would seemingly be helpful to both course instructors and prospective students. The old evaluation form asked a similar question: “How many hours per week did you spend on this course?” However, while the old evaluation form allowed students to type in any number as a response, the new form has students select from seven possible responses: <5, 5–10, 10–15, 15–20, 20–25, 25–30, and >30. Although the effect of this may be small on its own, limiting students to these responses reflects a much broader problem within the University.

These seven possible responses not only limit the range of data to be collected, but also present inaccurate expectations of student workloads in the College. By limiting responses to this specific range of hours worked, the form creates the impression that it is common for students to spend upward of 30 hours a week on a single course, that it is uncommon for students to spend less than five hours a week on a single course, and that the average course in the College requires that students spend between 15–20 hours a week.

If I were a first-year filling out this evaluation form for the first time, I would be terrified thinking that. Yet, in my three years here, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken a course that required more than 15 hours a week of work. And while my cushy political science major might be less work than some other departments, a look at the wider data confirms that most courses are not as all-consuming as the evaluation form would have us think.

In 2016, The Maroon conducted an analysis of course evaluations of the past 10 years. (This analysis was only possible, of course, because students were able to report exactly how many hours per week they spent on their courses.) The author, Vishal Talasani, found that the average time students reported spending on their courses was around six hours and 52 minutes, a far cry from the 15 to 20 hours the current course evaluation form might have us think. In fact, that range of 15 to 20 hours seems reserved for some of the College’s most time-intensive courses. The course on campus with the highest average reported workload, the first quarter of Honors Analysis, had an average of about 21 hours a week. There was not a single course where the average student reported spending more than 30 hours a week.

This discrepancy between the reality of student workloads and the impression provided by the course evaluation form is not on its own the mark of some insidious conspiracy—after all, it’s likely that someone just chose the range of possible answers at random. When I first filled out the new course evaluation form, I didn’t think much of the change. However, when I realized how much the form’s expectations of student work diverged from reality, I grew concerned. At the school where fun comes to die, all of us, students and staff, ought to be actively working to reduce stress and manage our workloads appropriately. Among students, there certainly exists a culture where we consider overworking to be the norm, where students who aren’t constantly in the Reg are led to believe they’re doing something wrong. One would hope that the University administration would be doing all it can to help eliminate that culture and help students strike a healthy school-life balance. Some programs within the University, such as the Academic Study Skills Assessment Program, do help advocate for healthier work habits.

Yet, recent actions by the administration seem to accomplish the opposite. The University’s decision to eliminate part-time status for students without disabilities while adding the option of a tuition-free fifth class suggests that the administration is deeply out of touch with the needs of its students. When students no longer have the option of reducing their workloads and instead are presented with the option to increase it even further, this culture of competitive overworking will only be exacerbated.

 All in all, these subtle actions by the University administration constitute a distinct message. They tell us that it is normal and expected that you spend 20 hours a week on each of your courses. That it is normal and expected that you take four courses a quarter, or even five. That it is abnormal if you feel overwhelmed by the pressures of college. That it is unacceptable to attempt to reduce your workload so that you can better manage your time. That if you can’t keep pace, just give up. You are no longer welcome.

Patrick Lou is a rising fourth-year in the College.