Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Another week, another column draft:

Evaluating the Course Evaluations

I was excited to read in the Advisor last week: “1Ls will be able to submit their elective course selections via the Web on Mon., Nov. 18, from 9 a.m. until Thurs., Nov. 21, at 12 p.m.” An elective! Exciting! So many choices! But unfortunately, all of them are about the law.

Having no idea what I want to take, my first reaction was to check the online Course Evaluation Guide and see what’s gotten good reviews in the past. The first evaluation I clicked on was very helpful: “Students generally liked [the professor]. Four students found him ‘clear.’ Other students said [he] was ‘not clear’ (4).” Very informative. Clearly, the Course Evaluation Guide has modeled itself after the Zagat’s guide to restaurants. The food was “good,” but “bad.” Service was “lightning-quick,” but “painfully slow.” I was “delighted,” but “poisoned.”

I read another review: “positive comments [about the casebook] ranged from good, well-edited, and challenging, to fine, relevant… unclear, horrible, boring, unorganized, the ‘worst’, impenetrable, and too complex.” Ah, yes. The more adjectives, the better.

I was also disappointed at some of the math in the course reviews: “[t]welve students commented that the casebook was bad and poorly edited (8).” But perhaps those course reviews were tabulated by the students referred to here, regarding another course: “[a]s for prerequisites, one student recommended second-grade math, while another suggested fourth-grade algebra.” The course was Family Law. No, I’m kidding. But, seriously, did we really learn algebra in fourth grade? Must have been a private school…

It was nice to see agreement about the value of course materials: “[s]tudents seemed to blame [the professor’s] power point presentations (11)… [a] significant number of students did find [the professor’s] power point presentations helpful (10).” In another review, “[s]ome students stated that the casebook was ‘poorly edited’, ‘poorly organized’, and ‘not great’. Other students found the book ‘good’ and ‘decent.’” Wonderful.

Some students apparently used their course reviews to show off their knowledge of obscure vocabulary words: “[o]ne student called the course ‘unnecessarily obfuscatory.’” In another review, “[o]ne student described [the professor] as ‘baroque in his formulation of the issues.’” Yet another student described a professor as a “pedagogical trainwreck.”

I was perhaps most amused by the following excerpt from a review: “[t]wo students declared that they would ‘love to have [the professor] as [their] grandfather.’ A minority dissented. They found him confusing, unable to bring students to the point, and grating.” Grandfatherly qualities indeed.

What was truly baffling about the course reviews was the lack of agreement regarding how the course was taught. Given the options – “Socratic, no passing,” “Socratic, passing allowed,” “Voluntary participation,” “Group/panel asked to prepare,” and “Lecture,” one would think it would be fairly easy to get a consensus from the reviews as to how each class is taught. But we are not so lucky.

For one class, 22 students said the class had “voluntary participation,” and 58 said “group/panel asked to prepare.” Can there really be that much confusion between the two? For another course, 66 said it was “Socratic, no passing,” and 54 said passing was allowed. With two students, who apparently were never called on, insisting it was voluntary participation. Huh?

One of the more baffling splits was a full five-category spread – 10 for Socratic, no passing, 41 for passing allowed, 17 for voluntary participation, 2 claimed a group/panel was asked to prepare, and 37 chose lecture. If you can’t even get this question right, how can you even think about the final exam? Odder still was a class that 99 students said was Socratic, no passing. Seems pretty clear. Yet 2 students said passing was allowed, 2 said it was voluntary participation, and 1 said it was a lecture. I don’t want any of those five students in my study group.

My favorite comment seemed truly out of left field: “[s]tudents felt that [the professor should avoid bashing the South (3).”

The conclusion I draw from reading all of these course evaluations is that the evaluations need an evaluation of their own. Because while they’re “comprehensive” and “organized,” they’re also “contradictory,” “confusing,” and “utterly useless.” The proliferation of “quotation marks” makes them “difficult” to “read.” In “sum,” they’re “good,” “bad,” “long,” “short,” “clear,” “unclear,” “unnecessarily obfuscatory,” “baroque in their formulation of the issues,” and “grandfatherly.”

Maybe I’ll just cross-register.