Opinion: UA should publicize grade distribution data

Justin McCleskey, Newsletter Editor

Course registration can make or break a semester. While students decide which courses they should take, feedback in the registration process helps to make informed decisions. More resources simplify that process.

The University of Alabama has great resources in Student Opinion of Instruction forms and grade distribution data, but it is not available to students. This information could equip students with objective course evaluation data to use while building a schedule.

The University provides an alternative by making class structures public in the Online Syllabus Management Project, but this service is only sometimes helpful. Most syllabi are not published by registration, forcing students to scour previous semesters’ information. 

With limited course information available online, students at The University of Alabama often turn to review websites like Rate My Professors to gauge the outcome of picking a specific course or professor. The website allows students to anonymously rate professors and describe their class experience.

While review sites help students get a baseline of class expectations beyond the syllabus, they should not be used in isolation. 

“I combine Rate My Professors, syllabi, recommendations from classmates and previous professor experience to make a choice,” said Daniel Ogden, a senior majoring in political science and public administration.

For students, the lack of comment validation measures on sites like Rate My Professors means ratings are unreliable at best. Because they are anonymous, ratings can be skewed by people who haven’t actually taken the class or be filled by one person making multiple reviews. Professors can even rate themselves anonymously.

An article in the Stanford Technology Law Review found that sites like Rate My Professors provide “unfair evaluations of personal information taken out of context,” that “lead to misjudgments or misunderstandings, potentially causing serious harm.”

This directly harms students as they search for classes. Three researchers at Harvard University found that student evaluations of teaching impact how quickly course sections fill up, building on a growing body of research.

When students at The University of Alabama are left to pick classes from previous syllabi and Rate My Professor reviews, they are at a significant disadvantage in comparison to other schools. 

In 1976, Georgia Tech’s Student Government Association established Course Critique, a website to help students plan their semesters by publishing course information and syllabi. The website now hosts grade distribution data for all classes, serving as a hub for students, faculty and administrators to receive unbiased course information. 

Students at Georgia Tech can search classes and receive grade distribution breakdowns for each semester, instructor and section. It maintains student privacy while giving valuable information about the difficulty of each class and professor quality.

That information is especially useful for students as they build a manageable schedule for the semester. During the Spring 2021 registration window, Course Critique netted over 8,800 new visitors in a 90-day window. 

Recognizing the benefits of Georgia Tech’s Course Critique site, The University of Georgia Student Government Association passed Resolution 33-05 to implement a similar institutional course evaluation website in January 2021. 

Their resolution surveyed 129 students at The University of Georgia, finding that 94.5% would be likely to use a grade distribution service. Further, 92.9% of respondents indicated that grade distribution data would be useful in comparison to other available services.

Students are highly likely to use and benefit from grade distribution data. When it’s possible to search class grades, students can anticipate more intense classes and prepare their schedule accordingly. They also receive a more objective view of Rate My Professors reviews. 

As a former SGA graduate Senator, I passed a similar resolution in spring 2022 encouraging The University of Alabama to create a course evaluation website hosting grade distribution data. The resolution only encouraged action, but the University could still benefit from publishing grade distribution data. 

While it is a genuine concern that publicized grade distribution data could incentivize students to take “easy” courses, anonymous review sites already do that. Grade distribution data merely equips students to make informed decisions while structuring their schedule instead of relying on skewed reviews.

Researchers at Central Michigan University found quantitative institutional feedback to be “more valid assessments of instructor performance.” Public grade distribution data equips students with objective information to evaluate classes and instructors.  

Publishing this information further allows for deeper institutional research that can improve class instruction and department rankings. Grade distribution data can help pinpoint departmental grade inflation or deflation while gauging instructor quality objectively. 

Everyone benefits from objective course evaluation data. Students receive more useful information as they plan their semesters. Faculty are given alternatives to unfair or harmful anonymous evaluations. Administrators have more analysis at their fingertips to improve, whether it’s internal or external

The University of Alabama collects important information through Student Opinions of Instruction forms and grade distribution data. Applying that information more broadly benefits everyone involved.