Improving the Q

Full participation and honesty, not midterm evaluations, are key

At the Committee on Undergraduate Education meeting Wednesday, administrators discussed the possibility of adding a midterm course evaluation to the Q guide in addition to the one that occurs at the end of the semester. Proposed by the chair of the Undergraduate Council's Education Committee, this idea may look good on paper but will in practice likely not be helpful either to students or faculty and only compound some of the problems surrounding class selection. The problem is, as stated during the meeting by former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68, faculty do not seriously consider student evaluations in the Q guide.

For one, it is not difficult to imagine a formula for faculty to receive good Q scores for their courses in the present form of the system. As students who both have a busy schedule and are driven to do well in their courses, Harvard undergraduates tend to rate highly courses that are enjoyable and not particularly difficult. As a result, it is not surprising that for many courses a high level of homework and testing tends to correlate inversely with Q scores. Because most professors and teaching fellows would rather prioritize relaying course content to students than alleviating their workloads, it is natural that they should in turn not read the Q guide too seriously. As a result, far from acting as a resource for professors, the Q much more effectively serves to guide other students, helping them to select which courses are fun and manageable at the same time. Adding another evaluation in the middle of the semester after the add-drop deadline would in all likelihood serve little purpose to students.

Furthermore, the professors who do care for student input can and do distribute their own course evaluations. These surveys, which can be tailored specifically to the circumstances of a particular class with questions chosen by the professor, are far more useful than a standardized school wide evaluation. As it is currently proposed, the midterm evaluation would merely serve the purpose of doing the same thing that pre-term planning has—creating an administrative burden that is a hindrance to students and ignored by many faculty members.

This is of course not to say that there are not some cases where the Q guide can help faculty. For example, the restructuring of Life Sciences 1b after years of dismal Q rating marked a clear victory for student evaluation. But these cases remain exceptions, not the norm, and are likely to affect course planning and structure seriously only in extreme cases when student feedback repeatedly falls so far on one side of the spectrum.

Instead, to account for the possibility of successful change arising from Q evaluations while at the same time keeping in mind the primary role of the Q guide is to help students, end-of-semester evaluation should be restructured to better serve this purpose. As it stands, the Q guide adopts an excessively professional and impersonal tone; it should be made more informal to increase utility to students. For example, instead of asking whether a class has turned one into a better citizen, the guide could ask questions that speak more directly to student concerns about a class’ atmosphere, level of difficulty, and pleasantness.  Moreover, the simple fix of making the Q guide mandatory would eliminate the bias that is inherent to any voluntary response system: Students with particularly strong opinions about a class, as opposed to the students who are more or less satisfied with their experience, are inevitably more likely to respond and so skew the evaluations.

In its current form, the Q guide can facilitate critical evaluation from students. But the purpose of this critical evaluation is to serve other students when selecting courses, and even in this capacity it could be improved upon significantly. A midterm evaluation, which would be of no use to students, is a distraction from the needed restructuring of the Q guide to serve its purpose better.