Column: How to find a good professor

By Brian Pierce

We’re all familiar with the evaluations that get handed out in our classes at the end of each semester. This is officially known as the Instructor and Course Evaluation System, or ICES, and they are administered by the Center for Teaching Excellence.

A lot of students may not take those evaluations very seriously, but if they knew more about how the system works, they might be more likely to put more thought into which bubbles on those forms to fill in. It isn’t the sexiest campus issue you’ve ever heard about, I realize, but it could just make your next few semesters here go by with much greater ease.

Two “global questions,” relating to the overall quality of the course and instructor, are automatically asked on every evaluation. Other questions are added by the department or college, and the instructor has the option of adding questions of his or her own.

There is one more set of questions that the instructor has the option of adding, known as the “student core.” The student core consists of six questions created by the Academic Affairs Committee of the Illinois Student Senate, a committee I chaired before becoming a columnist with The Daily Illini.

If the instructor adds these questions to his or her evaluations, the results of those six questions and the two global questions are then provided to ISS to be published online for students at http://www.iss.uiuc.edu/ices.

The questions address a variety of issues, including how fairly the instructor grades, how appropriate the workload is, how accessible the professor is, and how clearly the instructor explains class material.

Of particular interest to students, I believe, are the first two questions of the student core. The first asks how useful the required texts are to the class, given the common problem students have with increasingly expensive textbooks that end up not being particularly helpful.

The second question asks if the instructor was respectful to differences in political, religious, or racial views. This is a response to the concern that some instructors stifle the free exchange of ideas by imposing their ideology. Even as a liberal, I recognize the overwhelming liberal bias on campus. I sometimes feel shortchanged for lack of an instructor who will challenge my beliefs instead of reinforcing them.

These issues can only be addressed, however, if instructors choose to address them by adding these questions to their evaluations. Such a choice is beneficial for both students and faculty. All of the student core questions address issues that are of concern to both students and instructors. What professor wouldn’t want to know if he was perceived as being disrespectful to a certain segment of his class or if the textbooks he assigns aren’t being used?

The online publication of the results of these evaluations is useful to students only to the extent that a significant portion of the faculty population consents to their publication.

But again, its publication helps faculty members as well. If students who want instructor information can’t find it here, they will go to Web sites like Coursefire where students will find little more than the rants of disgruntled students holding grudges against a particular instructor. Surely, instructors would rather provide students with more reliable data that will not be subject to an anti-instructor bias.

The publication for students of this data is done not to find instructors who are in some way inadequate, but to identify and distinguish excellent instructors. The ISS instructor Web site has a link to instructors ranked as “outstanding” or “excellent.”

ISS even has its own faculty awards decided through student nominations (if you know a professor you think deserves an award, you can nominate him or her at http://www.iss.uiuc.edu/awards).

So go offer a little encouragement to your instructors to use the student questions. They will be making their decision soon. Let them know what you think.

Brian Pierce is a junior in LAS. His column appears on Wednesdays. He is consistently ranked as “outstanding” by fellow students. He can be reached at [email protected]