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New EECS Guide Brews Controversy

By Eric Richard
Associate News Editor

A change in the way the Undergraduate Guide to Course VI collected its data this term has led administrators to warn students that the information contained in the guide may not be comparable to past year's data. The change has also caused considerable confusion among the Undergraduate Guide, Course VI administrators, and producers of the Course Evaluation Guide about the role of each in the evaluation process.

In an effort to give students more time to answer the open-ended questions about each course, Sourabh A. Niyogi G, editor in chief of the Underground Guide, decided not to distribute the CEG "bubble forms" along with other class evaluation materials.

Instead, the written forms listed seven of the approximately 30 questions on the CEG machine-readable forms, including those used to rate the overall subject quality, lecturer quality, recitation quality, class difficulty, and average number of hours per week required by the course. Like the CEG forms, the questions asked students to rank each course on a scale of one to seven. However, the scale for the Course VI guides were more extreme, asking students whether each class was the best or worst they had ever taken.

This change caused a stir as people questioned the comparability of these statistics to those of previous years. In a letter distributed to all electrical engineering and computer science undergraduates, EECS Professor Leonard A. Gould '48, undergraduate officer for Course VI, explained, "The changes may make it difficult to compare this term's results with those from previous terms. This should be kept in mind when reading the Undergraduate Guide."

"You might argue that [the results] would be a little bit different," said Niyogi. "But we wanted to spread the distribution curve out."

The average response to the CEG forms is almost always between a 4.5 and a 5.5, and by relabeling the extremes of the one-to-seven scale, Niyogi hoped to "push [the curve] to a full one to seven scale, making it more meaningful."

CEG Chairman Michelle A. Starz '94 insisted that their traditional rating scale was a good one.

"I think that the statistical information that Niyogi did include might be able to be worked into our own database. But I am not sure how it will compare," Starz continued.

Misunderstanding at the root

Tension between the CEG and the Underground Guide groups grew primarily out of a misunderstanding. According to both Niyogi and Starz, it has been standard practice for the CEG to provide Eta Kappa Nu, the Course VI honor society responsible for producing the Undergraduate Guide, with its bubble forms. HKN would provide its own comment forms, which would be shared with the CEG.

However, Niyogi did not feel that the bubble forms served a significant purpose. "A lot of [Undergraduate Guide] reviewers and evaluators asked why we use the CEG forms. I've heard from a lot of my staff that students don't find that information valuable."

After meeting with both EECS Administrator Anne M. Hunter and the CEG staff, Niyogi went to Donna R. Savicki, the assistant dean of the School of Engineering, who authorized his changes. The Undergraduate Guide was distributed with data from the revised forms. "Anne Hunter sent me to the CEG. The CEG sent me to Donna Savicki. And Donna gave her approval," said Niyogi. "I thought it was all set."

However, Hunter said the situation has caused "enormous confusion among Eta Kappa Nu people, the department, and the CEG."

Change catches many off guard

Both the CEG staff and the Course VI administrators were surprised to learn after the fact that the CEG "bubble forms" were not used. "The CEG forms didn't get filled out," explained Hunter, "and we only discovered this after the evaluations were filled out."

Members of both the CEG staff and the EECS faculty considered a second round of evaluations using the CEG's machine-readable forms. "We looked at that very hard," said Hunter, "but we had already taken our 15 or 20 minutes out of lecture time. We have not found a satisfactory answer."

"We thought about it," said Starz, "but obviously there are people who feel that there are time constraints and that having two evaluations is simply unacceptable. We have also had problems with manpower."

"It was an unfortunate incident, but everybody realizes that it is too late, and they have accepted it," said Starz.

Niyogi, however, felt the CEG did not handle the situation properly. "My opinion of the CEG is that they don't treat us seriously enough. They have completely ignored me."

Guide, CEG continue revisions

In spite of the confusion surrounding the current review process, both the Underground Guide and the CEG are looking at ways of improving the services they offer. After working with the MIT administration, Niyogi has also made many past editions of the Undergraduate Guide accessible online through Athena. "The problem with the CEG and Underground Guide is that they don't have stuff from previous semesters," said Niyogi. "You should be able to see what the different kinds of professors were like."

Niyogi said the response to the program has been positive. "I've gotten three or four people to write back saying this is a really great idea."

Although Starz does not feel that putting the CEG online is in the group's immediate plans, she did say, "It's a question that has come up a lot over the past few years. I'm not sure how much the students would use it, but if there is a demand for it, we would pick up the idea again."