On a Scale of 1 to 5, What’s That Class’s Workload Like?

As I imagine is the case for most HLS students, I would never dream of taking a class without first thoroughly reviewing the professor’s course evaluations.  And for the most part, I have found them to be very useful and accurate.  The Feldmans and Rubensteins of the world who tend to elicit a near unanimous string of 5’s generally don’t disappoint.  That being said, the forms themselves could stand to be revised rather substantially, and I propose that the time has come for these revisions to be made.  Clearly a number of purposes must be served by the evaluation forms, as they are meant to be for the benefit of the professors, as well as students.  But as the current evaluation forms stand, there are a number of ambiguities that seem to serve no purpose at all.

Take for instance the question referenced in the title: the one that asks you to rate the class’s workload on a scale of 1-5.  Given that all the other questions asked with 1-5 rankings use a scale where 1=bad and 5=good, presumably this same scale applies to the workload question.  This means then that a rating of a 5 indicates that a class has a “really good” workload, not necessarily a large or small one.  I suppose I can make sense of a question asking whether workload is appropriate for the course, as distinct from how large that workload actually is, but I would suggest that if this is what the question is after, it could be rephrased so as to eliminate any ambiguity.

For instance, why not simply ask the following  “Do you think the workload was appropriate for the course?” with the following answer choices available “ Yes,” “No, workload was excessively large” or “No, workload was insufficient.”

Another section of the form that invariably invites snickering and some bewilderment is the question that asks you to assign percentages to the various ways which classroom time is spent.  This question then concludes strangely by asking you for the sum of the percentages you have assigned.  I can only guess that the point of the little arithmetic quiz is to make students aware of the fact that they haven’t assigned values adding up to 100, but constructing the question in this way just seems needlessly complex.  A more important problem is that this question tends to obscure the information that students are really looking for.  What I imagine most people are hoping to get out of the question is primarily (1) whether the professor cold calls and (2) what portion of the class is spent on cold-calling as opposed to lecture.  Why then not simply ask directly about whether the professor employs the Socratic method?

Perusing the pre-2005 evaluations reveals that the forms used to contain questions that were much more explicit on the topic of cold calling.  Perhaps it was thought that revealing the professor’s cold-calling habits explicitly was dissuading students from taking classes with professors who cold call and thus potentially also dissuading professors from using this teaching method.  Perhaps this was the case, but I’m skeptical if only because some of the most revered and highly sought after professors at HLS are inveterate cold-callers.  In any case, it’s hard to believe that the best option is to construct the evaluation forms so as to be intentionally obfuscatory.

Finally, one question that I don’t necessarily suggest eliminating, but whose strangeness is underappreciated is the one that asks you to rate the preparedness and engagement of your fellow classmates.  I have always been struck by the fact that rather than asking about your own level of preparedness, which presumably would convey similar information,  it instead asks you to speculate about the preparedness of others.  Asking about other students interestingly targets this question directly at the appearance of preparedness, rather than how prepared people actually are.  I don’t deny that the results of this question  are a useful metric of how gunner-ish a class is, but I find it odd that given the school’s reluctance to make clear whether a professor employs the Socratic method, that it will happily reveal whether students think that a certain class is full of gunners or alternatively slackers.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Monday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.