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CUE Talks Lotteried Courses

By Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writer

Top College administrators expressed concerns about a perceived rise in the number of limited enrollment courses this semester at Wednesday’s Committee on Undergraduate Education meeting.

The meeting—filled with greater debate than usual—also touched on a possible delay in the Add/Drop deadline as well as the potential adoption of a formalized mid-semester course evaluation.

Former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said he raised the issue of the perceived rise in the number of lotteried classes at the meeting because he had heard anecdotal evidence that an unusually high number of professors lotteried their courses this shopping period.

“People pay a lot of money to come to Harvard.... And if they want to take a course, they should be able to take the effing course,” Lewis said.

Committee members debated possible causes of the potential rise in number of lotteried classes, pointing to factors such as a flawed Pre-Term Planning system, limited classroom space, and faculty reluctance to teach large classes.

“My sense is that it’s increasingly thought to be a matter of professorial prerogative to say, ‘to make a better teaching experience for me, I’m not going to teach these students who are paying $50,000 a year to come to Harvard’—and it doesn’t seem right to me,” Lewis said.

Currently, the office of the Program of General Education randomly lotteries high-demand Gen Ed classes. But in-demand departmental classes are sometimes lotteried through an application process run by the department and that might favor certain concentrations or class years.

Chair of the Undergraduate Council’s Education Committee Samuel F. Himel ’12, who attended the meeting, said he “would have liked to see less deference to departments” in the discussion, adding that Harvard is “a place where there have to be institution-wide standards.”

UC President Danny P. Bicknell ’13, also present at the meeting, said in an interview after the meeting that he hopes to solve the perceived problem by exploring changes in Pre-Term Planning or moving lotteries earlier in shopping week.

“We’re trying to make it where students aren’t having three classes they’re lotterying for, and then they get lotteried out of all of them,” Bicknell said.

Members also discussed the possibility of moving back the deadlines to add, drop, or withdraw from a class. Currently, the Add/Drop deadline falls on the fifth Monday of the term, while the deadline to withdraw from a course falls on the seventh Monday of the semester.

This past fall, students dropped about 3200 courses and added 2200 courses, according to data provided by Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke in an interview. In spring 2011, roughly 2900 courses were dropped and 2600 courses were added, Burke said.

During the discussion, a number of administrators voiced concerns that a delayed Add/Drop deadline might encourage students to drop a course late in the term to avoid a low grade.

“It’s as though the purpose of the whole system [of a late Add/Drop deadline] is to arrange it in such a way that students can maximize their GPAs, and that’s not the point,” Lewis said.

Although most administrators who spoke during the committee meeting said they would be unlikely to support a delayed Add/Drop deadline, they reached a consensus that professors should be encouraged to give students feedback about their performance in the form of a midterm examination before the fifth week of the term.

At the meeting, Himel introduced a third proposal that would create a mandated, College-wide midterm course evaluation system that would allow students to provide feedback to their professors mid-semester.

Himel said he thought the end-of-the-term Q Guide evaluation and the proposed mid-term evaluation system would both be “important data points” in assessing a course.

Currently, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning informally facilitates mid-semester evaluations that some professors and teaching fellows distribute to their students.

But Lewis slammed the proposal, saying he thought a peer evaluation system among faculty would provide more useful feedback than a second student evaluation.

“The Q Guide, as presently formulated,...serves the principal purpose of making students think we care what they think,” Lewis said, adding that “we know, scientifically, that the Q Guide numbers correlate strongly with what students think of professors after watching them lecture for thirty seconds with no sound.”

“I doubt that has much to do with good teaching or quality learning,” he added.

The CUE, an exploratory group, only discusses potential undergraduate education policies. If a mid-term course evaluation were to be adopted, the decision would be made by a different committee.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at

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