Varcie: It’s time to change how undergraduate courses are evaluated

Joshua Varcie, Op-Ed Contributor

At face value, Northwestern undergraduates appear to be receiving an elite university education. We attend a top-ranked institution, get high-paying jobs after graduation and often become leaders in our respective fields. But is the quality of education received by undergraduates at NU truly reflective of the University’s elite status? The answer is unclear, and the current approach to evaluating undergraduate learning at NU does little to answer this question. Instead, it simply provides University administrators with unreliable information that may lead them astray.

Let’s start with an examination of the flawed Course and Teacher evaluation system, the primary tool University officials use to “improve the learning experience at Northwestern.” It’s quite obvious that the CTEC system suffers significantly from selection bias. This occurs in many aspects of the system; however, most relevant is that CTECs only request information from those who have completed the course, ignoring the students who dropped the course before the end of the quarter. Presumably, students drop a course because they are dissatisfied with it, so the opinions of students who do not like a course are underrepresented in CTECs. In turn, this selection bias can artificially inflate CTEC ratings, especially for classes with high drop rates.

CTECs are also not generally used appropriately by undergraduates. When asked to speak to a course’s attributes in the published comments, most undergraduates comment on the difficulty of the course, address the professor’s grading scale or give advice to other students, rather than providing feedback on the quality of instruction received. This misuse of the system, while helpful for those attempting to maximize their GPA while minimizing their effort, doesn’t improve the quality of instruction at NU. The fact that NU relies on this flawed system as its primary means of understanding undergraduate learning is reflective of how out-of-touch the University is with the undergraduate learning experience.

Furthermore, the University harms the undergraduate learning experience by failing to actually understand how classes are being taught. It is commonplace in the private sector, and even in primary and secondary education, for the performance of employees and the institution as a whole to be regularly evaluated. However, academic departments at NU are only required to be evaluated every seven to 10 years. Additionally, this process contains no system through which professors’ teaching methods in their undergraduate courses are actually observed in-person by members of the review committee. Instead, these department reviews rely on the flawed CTEC system to gain feedback on the quality of undergraduate instruction, resulting in little quality control; professors can teach the content they want in the way they want, regardless of how well these methods promote students’ learning and development.

This is problematic not only because it fails to hold professors accountable for their teaching, but because it prevents professors from receiving valuable constructive criticism that can actually allow them to improve their performance. Of course, this is not to suggest that professors deliberately choose to do their jobs poorly, as many incredible undergraduate professors exist at NU. But the fact that administrators remain largely unaware of the performance of undergraduate professors in their classrooms is detrimental to the University’s very purpose of providing an elite-level education.

There are several steps NU can take to mitigate these shortcomings in its approach to evaluating undergraduate learning. To begin, NU should require students who drop courses after the first week of classes to fill out CTECs for their dropped courses at the end of the quarter. Of course, students who have dropped courses are not able to give an accurate description of the course as a whole, but they can provide valuable answers to questions such as “Why did you drop the course?” or “To what extent was the quality of instruction a factor in your dropping of the course?” Adopting such a mechanism in CTECs would help reduce the effect of the selection bias in the system, providing administrators with valuable information about why certain courses experience high drop rates and how this can be improved.

Furthermore, the University should require that all professors who teach an undergraduate course are observed at least once per year by a fellow faculty member or administrator in their department. Peer observers should provide constructive feedback to the faculty member on the quality of the instruction and how well the course meets the objectives stated in the Undergraduate Course Catalog. Moreover, observers should report anonymous feedback to each academic department so that it can obtain an understanding of the common shortcomings in the department and work to address them. These evaluations should not be used for tenure decisions or granting pay raises, but rather for constructive feedback for the department.

Currently, NU administrators fail to understand the undergraduate learning experience because the methods used to review undergraduate education are inadequate. It is crucial for them to take positive steps to reverse this trend if the University wants to remain an elite institution not only for research, but also for learning.

Joshua Varcie is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.