How much time do you spend choosing classes?
If you are like me in my freshmen year, a lot. I combed the Undergraduate Bulletin for days, enamored with the collegiate sounding classes: Introduction to Political Science, Moral Reasoning, Society and Evolution, etc. It seemed like just reading the names was making me smarter. I examined each description carefully, and even went as far as to Google names of professors.
If you are like me now, two years later in my junior year, registering for classes is a nuisance. The newness of the process has worn off, the excitement is gone and using my SOLAR account now feels like paying homage to a time when a friendly paperclip helped me on Microsoft Word.
Yet with every enrollment date I still feel the underlying responsibility to get it right. Everyone has heard the unfortunate tale where one forgotten course meant delaying graduation for another semester, or where one bad professor meant the difference between graduating with magna or summa.
So what steps do students take to avoid this from happening to them?
The Ratings Are In
RateMyProfessors.com is one way, and probably the most well known.
Launched in May 1999, the website publishes user-generated ratings of college professors on a 1 to 5 scale (Stony Brook’s professors have an average rating of 3.73).
Caitlin McAnulty, a junior majoring in engineering, said the site helps her determine if she will struggle in a class or not. “For one class I had to take,” she said, “the site said the class was hard and the professor was tough, and boy, were they right.”
With features like the chili pepper determining a professor’s “hotness,” RateMyProfessors.com cultivates a space aimed specifically at college students. It was “built for college students, by college students,” as the site says, encouraging students to “join the fun!”
But the fun does not come without a few problems, too.
There is no way to know whether the writer of a review actually took the course, there is no way to know if a bad review is the result of a disgruntled student who turned to trolling after receiving a bad grade and there is no way to know if a student has submitted multiple ratings, or whether the professor is writing his own praises.
Enter Stony Brook’s solution: classie-evals.stonybrook.edu, a website designed by Stony Brook’s Teaching, Learning & Technology division that makes the course evaluation data from previous semesters public. Sabahat Sarfaraz, a double major in psychology and English, has stopped using RateMyProfessors.com since she found out about Stony Brook’s system, finding it to be a “more reliable source.”
An alternate to the commercial RateMyProfessor, the site, advertised as “something like ‘Rate My Professor’ but just for Stony Brook, and with a lot more data and accuracy,” was created in response to feedback received by the Faculty Center about course evaluations.
“They heard over and over again that students would be more willing to respond if they could benefit from seeing previous responses,” said Chuck Powell, the Assistant Provost for Teaching, Learning & Technology. Richard Von Rauchhaupt, along with student interns, wrote the code for classie-evals.stonybrook.edu and worked with Patricia Aceves, Lorraine Carroll and Catherine Scott from the Faculty Center to create the site, which won an award within the Division of Information Technology.
Powell said, compared to ratemyprofessors.com, classie-evals.stonybrook.edu “varies in both scope and fidelity. The commercial site doesn’t cover all Stony Brook courses as we do,” he explained. “Our system ensures that only students enrolled are allowed to comment and only one response per student is allowed.”
Even with these tools, there seems to be an even more reliable option for getting scheduling advice: asking a human.
That’s right: in the digital age, both McAnulty and Sarfaraz chose man over machine and prefered to ask students in their curriculum for guidance. However, they disagreed on the helpfulness of academic advisors.
With her engineering curriculum, McAnulty found that advisors “don’t help much” and are misleading about the difficulty of classes, while Sarfaraz only trusts counselors in the Psychology and English department and urged new students to “always go see your advisor when scheduling for classes.”