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Getting students to make their mark

Fewer bothering to grade professors as systems go online

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / April 7, 2010

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It’s an end-of-semester ritual: A class of college students, armed with 3-inch pencils, scribbling critiques of their professors and what they learned. The evaluations help shape important decisions, like which professors get tenure, or what courses students choose.

But as colleges start to abandon traditional paper evaluations for an online, do-on-your-own-time format, more and more students are ignoring the surveys altogether.

Colleges are so worried about the sudden drop-off in feedback that some recently began enticing students with incentives. Northeastern, where participation dipped to 54 percent online compared with 80 percent on paper, is offering iPods and meal vouchers in lotteries held throughout the two-week window allotted for online evaluations. Some departments at MIT, which tested the online method this year and will fully adopt it next year, award pizza to the class with the highest return rate.

Boston University, which will begin trying online evaluations in the fall, and other colleges are considering a harder line — withholding students’ grades until they submit evaluations.

This year Harvard, which moved to online evaluations in 2005, began allowing undergraduates who fill out the surveys to view their grades a few weeks early. As a result, participation rose to 96 percent, compared with 65 percent a few years ago.

Faculty worry that the new method, while appealing to tech-savvy students, could jeopardize their reputations and futures because fewer students feel compelled to fill them out during the hectic weeks before finals.

“If there’s not a stick to force students to do them, they won’t do them unless they really have an ax to grind,’’ said Harriet Ritvo, a history professor at MIT. “So the yield is much lower than it would be if you pass them out in class.’’

College officials say online evaluations save money and allow professors and their departments to see students’ responses much faster than paper results, which are tabulated by hand. In both formats, students typically rate the quality of teaching and other factors on a numerical scale, and also have space to write their thoughts on the class and professor.

The online surveys also offer a sanctioned alternative to the popular but unregulated website ratemyprofessors.com. On the site, students — and anyone else — can post anonymous thoughts, vent their frustrations, and even denote “hot’’ professors by assigning a chili pepper icon next to their names.

MIT’s student body president, Michael Bennie, said most students prefer online evaluations because they would rather type than write longhand.

“The paper survey is one of those anachronisms that look out of place,’’ Bennie said. “Online evaluations is just a more modern approach to feedback.’’

Still, in an MIT online pilot last fall, only about 60 percent of Ellen Harris’s music students filled out the evaluation, compared to nearly all of them who completed paper evaluations during previous years. Even worse, fewer than a handful submitted written comments online, which many professors view as more valuable than the numerical course ratings.

Harris, who has taught at MIT for 21 years, vividly remembers one paper evaluation in which a student advised her to stop reading from her notes during lectures. “I thought, ‘OK, I need to pay attention to that,’ ’’ Harris said. “So every semester after that, I just put my lecture notes down and talked.’’

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern criminology professor who headed a committee that implemented the change there beginning in 2007, said students who took the online surveys wrote more thoughtful comments. A Northeastern study also found no correlation between the response rate and the quality of ratings faculty receive, alleviating professors’ concerns that only unhappy students would make the effort to submit online evaluations.

“Faculty worried that this would affect their pocketbooks because course evaluations are used as part of annual evaluations, which affect merit raises,’’ Fox said. “They were concerned that only students who hated them were going to go online.’’

At Northeastern, student culture has leaned toward turning to ratemyprofessors.com for feedback on which courses to take, said Ryan Fox, Northeastern’s student president. But now, with written comments available to all students to review for the first time, more undergraduates read the official Northeastern evaluations for guidance.

“Ratemyprofessors is something people use when you feel like you don’t have anything else,’’ Fox said. “But this is a much more legitimate form.’’

Most schools using online evaluations make the numerical results accessible to students, faculty, and administrators, but not those outside the university community.

Some professors dismiss the value of course evaluations because they feel the ratings do a poor job of measuring the quality of education students receive.

“It’s totally meaningless,’’ said Eric Mazur, Harvard physics professor. “It’s a popularity contest. It measures charisma. It has nothing to do with how much students learn, but it seems that people are addicted to it.’’

Mazur said he consistently receives high evaluations. But when he came up with a new way to test students’ learning, he discovered they lacked deep understanding of basic physics concepts such as Newton’s laws of motion.

“I was dragged out of my ivory tower,’’ said Mazur, who has changed his teaching methods from lectures to peer instruction and group inquiry. “I just basically fooled myself into thinking for a long time that I was a good teacher, when in fact, I was just letting my students learn by rote.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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