U of M students push for release of course evaluations

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The age of social media has unveiled a dizzying array of documents and data once sealed away from public view. But among the documents still kept under wraps on college campuses are student evaluations of professors.

The University of Minnesota's Student Association is pushing for student evaluations of classes to be made public for the first time.

At the end of each semester, students fill out an evaluation for each class. Students are asked about the professor, what they'd like to see done differently, how the class compares to similar classes, how much study time it demands each week, among other questions, Allison Grudem, a sophomore at the U of M, told KARE 11.

Click here for a look at the University of Minnesota-Duluth's evaluation form.

Currently, student evaluations are only read by faculty. The U of M says evaluations have been kept private because they play a role in tenure and promotion decisions, the Star Tribune says.

The newspaper reports that a proposal before the Faculty Senate would allow students to look up any course on the university website and see what others have said about it.

The Faculty Senate could address this at its next meeting, which is May 1, according to the U of M's website.

Freshman Nick Ohren is among the students who are pressuring the university to make these ratings public. He told the paper that when he was picking courses for his first semester he had little to go on, aside from his adviser's recommendations. He said it was frustrating not knowing more about the courses he was going to take.

Valkyrie Jenson, a sophomore and student representative, told the Star Tribune that students these days have grown up expecting openness and "if there's information, it should be shared, especially on a university setting."

Others believe that the evaluations should stay private.

“When you start putting evaluations out before the public, what you’re conveying is a message that student satisfaction is more important than quality of education. And that to me sends the wrong signal," Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University engineering professor who runs a website called GradeInflation.com, told the Star Tribune.

Spurgeon Thompson, an instructor at Fordham University, has a similar opinion. Last year, he wrote a blog post on student ratings for Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that higher education in the United States has shifted toward "consumerist assumptions" and student evaluations are like customer satisfactory surveys.

But Thompson says students aren't just customers purchasing a product. He gives the analogy of a person wanting to buy an iPhone. If Apple made someone apply to buy the phone, but only accepted 30 percent who wanted to purchase one, and then made those people master the phone for several years before they could have it, would they still regard themselves as a customer? He says those people would be more like a "pre-employee" than a paying customer.

Thompson also makes the point that students are graded, while customers aren't, and it's "psychologically complex" to evaluate someone who is evaluating you.

There are public websites that students can use to find out more about professors and classes. Ratemyprofessor.com is one where students can share their uncensored opinions about professors and classes. Some students say this can be unreliable, though, KARE 11 reports.

Prof. Will Durfee, who chairs the Faculty Senate leadership committee, told the newspaper that if the evaluations are released, students would only get to see the course ratings, not teacher ratings, because they are considered private under state law. The Student Press Law Center also addressed this issue.

Some universities only release part of student surveys. According to Georgetown University's website, it releases an aggregate of information from the student evaluations, but keeps other information private because it is used for tenure and promotions.

In the last few years, several media outlets have tackled the student evaluation debate. In 2012, the New York Times published a piece saying that students will reward good professors, but will equate demanding professors with bad teaching.

The Washington Post asks the question: Student evaluations are typically biased, but does it matter?

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