One Size Doesn't Fit All

May 4, 2006

Student course evaluations are ubiquitous these days, whether they be at a national site like or sponsored by individual institutions. But Harvard University faculty members are split on whether evaluations should be mandatory.

Both the Faculty Council and the Harvard College Curricular Review have recommended requiring course evaluations, but at a Tuesday meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, many professors expressed the need to have a deeper discussion about the utility and drawbacks of evaluations before any decisions are made.

Peter J. Burgard, a professor of German, said that student evaluations are often useful, but regularly become “popularity contests” that “provide little or no useful information to professors.”

Burgard said that student evaluations “have come to be a highly developed reward system” that can end up punishing good, but untenured professors who may not be teaching the most popular subjects, or who may not have “a personality the students respond well to.”

Course evaluations are currently published in the Committee on Undergraduate Education Guide, or “CUE Guide,” for students to peruse. About 60 faculty members, of about 700 in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences,  chose not to hand out official course evaluations in the fall, which meant that teaching assistants in those courses also did not get feedback.

Burgard said he usually participates in student evaluations, but that he has opted out in the past when teaching an “experimental course” for the first time. A professor “might want to give it one run first before evaluations get published,” which could hurt the ability of the course to attract students in the future, Burgard said. He added that students, who at Harvard have a week long shopping period for courses, should choose classes based on content, not on evaluations that may not accurately represent student sentiment.

Irene Choi, a Harvard psychology student and member of the Undergraduate Council, said that she understands that faculty members are concerned that students who do poorly in a class might lay into a teacher in their evaluation. But she said that students who do well might balance that out, and that, knowing evaluations are the subjective view of students, useful information can be extracted. “There are reasons to how skewed they may be and whether or not those reasons are entirely legitimate,” Choi wrote in an e-mail. “I think it's something that all students would like to know before they take a course.”

Choi added that her “favorite course at Harvard yet is also one where I got one of the worst grades in my life. The lecturer was engaging, the course material was informative and interesting, and the midterms were near impossible. Likewise, one of the easiest courses I ever took here actually lies at the bottom of my preferences.”

Harvey C. Mansfield, a professor of government, reminded colleagues at the Tuesday meeting that there are plenty of pitfalls to evaluations. He said that evaluations promote “the rule of the less wise over the more wise … on the assumption students know best.”

Mansfield called requiring evaluations an “intrusion on the sovereignty of the classroom,” and said that evaluations “reward popular teachers at the expense of serious teachers … popular teachers can be serious but many are not, and many teachers are serious but not popular.”

Mansfield added that he would like to hear more discussion of evaluations, and to see their role diminished rather than increased.

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