Professors Call Q Guide "Worthless" Tool for Assessing Courses

Christopher A. Hopper ’13 rates his classes in the Q guide based on how they “make him feel.” If a class is painful or makes him sad, he is more likely to give it a low score.

Madeline S. Peskoe ’14 uses the Q guide as a procrastination tool before exams. She is more likely to give a course a good score if the professor was enjoyable—even if she did not learn as much.

And while Christopher Z. F. Husch ’13 spends twenty minutes filling out the Q guide for each of his courses, he said he has no doubt that most students are not nearly as diligent.

Harvard administrators hope the Q Guide can serve as a fair measurement of student course satisfaction and a credible metric for evaluating teaching quality. But faculty and administrators interviewed for this article almost unanimously admit that the reliability of Q scores is questionable at best. Some even argue that what the Q Guide measures—a student’s satisfaction with a particular teacher or course—is completely unrelated to how much he or she actually learns in the course.

“[The scores] are totally worthless,” said former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68. “Everybody knows they’re worthless.”

As the Faculty of Arts and Sciences embarks on a campaign to prioritize undergraduate teaching and place itself at the cutting edge of higher education, it continues to lack a definitive system of assessing the quality of the teaching done by its faculty members.

THE OBJECTIVE

In the fall of 2006, former FAS Dean Jeremy R. Knowles charged nine of the school’s faculty members with examining how FAS could better “support and reward a commitment to the steady improvement of teaching.”

The resulting committee—known as the Task Force for Teaching and Career Development—made almost a dozen recommendations in its eventual report. It called for the development of alternative methods of teacher evaluation and asked that teaching performance be given greater consideration in the decisions ranging from the appointment and promotion of junior faculty members to salary raises for tenured professors.

In the publicly available document, the authors of the report admitted that student evaluations were “at best incomplete and imperfect ways to assess the quality and impact of faculty teaching.”

Over five years after the Task Force filed its report, professors say that teaching has indeed taken on a greater significance in the lives of faculty as an important component in performance reviews, promotion decisions, and salary adjustments. But the Q Guide continues to remain the primary means of assessing teaching quality.

“[The Q Guide] has become something on which the administration relies heavily for promotions, and it’s troublesome,” said Ali Asani, chair of the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “So much emphasis is put on Q scores as a measure of good teaching that I think it ultimately has a negative effect on teaching.”

Ladder faculty, however, are not the only ones who have reason to be concerned about their Q scores.

The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning rewards, for example, teaching fellows, lecturers, preceptors, and course assistants who receive high Q scores. Nearly 40 percent of the workforce receives some sort of award based on positive student evaluations, according to Bok Center director Terry Aladjem. Teaching fellows who get very low Q scores receive a letter from the Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris and receive additional training from the Bok Center.

‘WORTHLESS’

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