Olivia Doran ’21

It’s that time of year again: we all received the email from the registrar’s office telling us to choose our courses for this coming spring in WebTree. 

If you’re anything like me, this email evokes both feelings of excitement for the upcoming semester and stress because it means having to make decisions. 

But what frustrates me most when trying to choose my classes is not having access to previous student course evaluations. 

Davidson students take time at the end of each semester to give an anonymous review of their experience in each class. These reviews are taken to the registrar’s office, and we never see them again. The evaluations for each class are only shared with that professor, unless it is a special occasion, such as when the professor is up for tenure. Only then are the evaluations shared with the head of the department and administration. 

At other higher education institutions, this isn’t the case. At some colleges, including Vanderbilt University, and graduate schools like the University of Virginia Law School, students have access to their peers’ evaluations of classes. Davidson should implement this practice as well.

I would like to have access to a platform that catalogs previous student evaluations for a given class that students could visit in order to help them decide which courses they want to take. 

Course evaluations include a review of the professor, but the evaluations we fill out ask many other questions that tend to be oriented towards evaluating the course in general. Therefore, this would allow students to understand the structure, content, and organization of each course. 

Currently, we are limited to a tiny one or, if we are lucky, two paragraph description of each class in the course catalogue on the Davidson website. This is not enough information.

I want something similar to what we have in the study abroad office: a compilation of past reviews all in one place, except this time in digital form. 

Davidson recently switched over to online course evaluations, which means that evaluations are already digitized. It is now easier than ever to build a platform of these evaluations and make them available for students. 

As it is difficult to keep a visible record of all previous student evaluations throughout the years, I think that it would be reasonable to update the platform so that just the course evaluations of the last time the course was offered were available. 

As of right now, students’ best option to get a review of a class is to check ratemyprofessor.com. But, the site has outstanding issues. 

For one, there aren’t comments about every professor, and even if there are comments, they almost never cover every class the professor teaches. This means that if a student is looking for reviews on a particular class, we might not find any. 

Additionally, comments tend to be few, dated, and polarized. My biggest problem with the site, however, is that the comments are typically about the professor and not the class. This makes sense as the site is primarily for students to rate their professors, but I want a way to evaluate the course as a whole. 

In addition to visiting ratemyprofessor.com, I have tried to seek out people who have taken the classes before. But who has the time to track down and go on a Nummit date with someone from each class that one is considering taking? Even if a student does this, we are only getting one opinion out of all of the students who took the class.

Access to course evaluations would be particularly beneficial for incoming freshmen and transfer students. For any of those students who have questions about a course and have limited access to students’ opinions about classes, being able to read former evaluations would give them a better idea about the classes they are considering. 

Two of my best friends took a course their freshman year, which they ended up strongly disliking. They quickly became uninterested in the subject material and found that the teaching styles of their professors were ineffective. 

Both of my friends are phenomenal students, but the combination of uninteresting course material and ineffective teaching caused them to become unmotivated. They told me that they wish they had had the opportunity to talk to former students about the course prior to taking it.

Last spring I met with the Director of Academic Assessment Brent Maher, who has been at the forefront of Davidson’s transition from handwritten to online course evaluations. As some upperclassmen may have noticed, the online course evaluations are formatted differently from the handwritten ones we used in the past. 

Maher explained that both female professors and professors of color tend to get lower reviews and the change in format is part of an effort to minimize this. 

He also said that in order for the course evaluations to be made available to students, the faculty would have to vote on the matter. 

Because of bias towards these groups, Maher said that it is  unlikely that the Davidson faculty would vote in favor of my proposal. 

I agree that this bias is completely unacceptable, and for that reason, I would have a message on the platform reminding students about this bias and to keep this in mind when reading the reviews. 

Despite the bias factor, I find that there would be benefits for professors in making course evaluations available to students. 

Course evaluations would allow students to make better informed decisions, and, therefore, they would be more likely to choose classes that interest them. 

I can think of nothing more that a professor wants than for their students to be engaged and to enjoy the course material. 

Similarly, the system would reduce the amount of disappointed students who find that the course was not what they expected. Just as the course became unpleasant for my two disappointed friends, I am certain that attempting to teach disengaged students was unpleasant for their professors as well. 

Access to course evaluations would allow students to know what to expect from a class in terms of difficulty, workload, and teaching style. With this information, students would be able to determine how suitable the class would be for them and as a result, Davidson professors would find a greater percentage of the class eager to learn and participate. 

As we have just switched to digital course surveys, now is the time to begin thinking about making course evaluations available to students.

Olivia Doran ’21 is a Classics major from Bethesda, Maryland. Contact her at oldoran@davidson.edu.