Princeton University’s Response to Anonymous Course Reviews

Many of us are familiar with sites like RateMyProfessors.com, a place for students to share their course experiences, determine a course’s difficulty, and learn a professor’s evaluated hot-or-not’ness before enrolling.

The primary problem with that kind of site is that it doesn’t offer space for good quality discourse. It’s not helpful for students. And it’s not a tool to make informed choices that maximize learning.

How can a university promote course discovery and combat anonymous course review sites by creating their own?

We invited Nic Voge, Senior Associate Director at Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, to join us on the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss Principedia, Princeton University’s in-house course discovery forum. Princeton constructed the forum to promote student sharing and metacognition while combatting anonymous and unhelpful course review sites.

Reconceptualize the Role of Students in the Learning Process

“What Principedia does is it provides a set of questions that guide students to do what we call a course analysis,” Nic told us. “So it’s an objective description of how the course is organized, what the key goals are, the objectives, how it’s taught, the features of the class that a student would want to know at the point of course selection.”

Principia also features a considerable portion of advice from students about how to learn, particularly by aligning student learning with the goals and objectives of the faculty. Alignment is crucial.

“(Principia) was based on a few principles of pedagogy,” Nic said, “which (are) transparency of objectives and intentions and expectations, help learners, as I said, get in alignment, get in tune with their faculty, and learn the most.”

Princeton also believes students can identify difficult problem areas and then give their fellow students advice that’s likely to be actionable by other students.

How Principedia Helps Promote Student Metacognition

Using Principedia, students analyze how they’re taught and how they learn. They’re enacting metacognition in those acts.

“We’re asking them to identify an effective learning strategy to describe the criteria of what counts as knowing or learning,” Nic said. “Those are acts of metacognition. I’m a firm believer that one of the areas where students can really grow metacognition is by thinking about how they’re being taught and the design logic behind that.”  

Principedia is helping students to lift the curtain on the design processes, to understand that the choices faculty members make are driven by their goals and objectives. The realize that the assumption is that students will align their learning, their purposes and intentions, to those objectives.

Students using Principedia should be asking three questions:

  1. Is what I’m learning in alignment with the goals and objectives?
  2. How well am I learning?
  3. What strategies can I undertake to fix up my gaps in understanding or strengthen my understanding?

Spreading the Word About Principedia

“We’ve reached out to students who are already engaging in processes of thinking about how they’re taught and their role in it,” Nic said, “so there’s quite a proliferation of peer educator roles on our campus.”

These students receive quite a lot of training and gain appreciation and sensitivity by virtue of their training. They’re primed to bring those skills to the analysis of the courses they’re taking.

Princeton’s hard. It’s challenging. It’s rigorous. Saying, “Look, you can make the experience for a fellow student better both in terms of their enjoyment of a class and their success” is a huge benefit to its students.  

Student Responses to Principedia

Working together to make a Princeton education better for everyone is appealing. Students get that.

Some students, however, were hoping for the chance to give more tips. But Princeton says it’s looking for roots, not tips.

As Nic puts it, “We can get tips on the course evaluations, and that’s fine. We’re trying to open a different channel of discussion. It’s about methods and processes and learning from instruction.”

About 75% of students are aware of Principedia. The faculty are appreciative. And the students see how the platform is helping them excel.

Next Steps Advice for Other Institutions Looking to Combat Anonymous Review Sites

Princeton’s technology team has already created a plugin on WordPress. Anyone can use that plugin to create a site of their own, and simply populate it with their own name and logo.

The WordPress plugin for Principedia is hosted on Github for anyone to download. The instructions are also located in there: https://github.com/McGrawCenter/principedia. The plugin can be worked into any WordPress site without any programming knowledge.

“You might have whatever institution-ipedia or university-ipedia or college-ipedia that you wanted,” Nic said. “The bones of it, the framework is there for you.”

The plugin has a lot of features has already figured out through trial and error, making contributions to the site easier and more manageable. Relatively little technical support needed, but it’s helpful to have someone who’s familiar with WordPress.

“Check in with your IT office on campus just to ensure that it works for you,” Nic said, “but it’s free, cost-free really because of the effort of this wonderful technological team that we have on board.”

This post is based on a podcast interview with Nic Voge from Princeton University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.