I worked for what is now known as the “Q Guide” one summer. I read many a review, tallied comments, double checked reviews, and pondered grammar. During that time, I learned many things about the inner workings of that review.
While it is easy to just read the paragraphs and accept them at face value, you really need to dig a little deeper to understand a given review in its context.
Here are a few tips to to best understand the Q Guide to help you decide which courses to shop and take.
1) Basic facts
All of the adjectives ascribed to a given course in the Q Guide is literally calculated from what reviewers say. So, if the Q Guide mentions that a “Professor Blah is interesting (30%),” we mean that 30% of those responding to that very section (that number in parentheses after the section title) actually called the Professor “interesting” in their course reviews.
For most classes, the editors have to read every single review. For classes with enrollment above 300? 500? (generally your large intro. courses), we take every other or every third review, distributed across section leaders to the best of our abilities.
For classes where the enrollment is less than 18? 15? (or so), we write a paragraph trying to note the general sentiment of the reviews.
For the percentages in the written parts, we double/triple check to make sure those are fair reflections of what the reviewers actually say.
And finally, we only include comments that made 10%+ of the reviewers say more or less the same thing.
2) Understand the “workload” and “difficulty” metrics
Because Harvard is Harvard, a higher rating for workload and difficulty means that the class has a larger workload and a higher level of difficulty. This is contrary to a high rating for a professor, which means that the professor is awesome.
This means, you should look at the different components that go into that overall Q score. You’re looking for high numbers in everything but these two metrics.
3) Figure out how many people responded
For a large class, not that many people will respond. That’s generally okay. For classes that are smaller, but with a low response rate (this is noted), beware that the people responding are those with stronger emotions: either negative or positive. A lot of the “neutrals” just won’t be bothered to take that 10 minutes to fill it out.
4) Figure out who is taking the class
Take a glance to figure out if the class is dominated by upperclassmen, concentrators, premeds etc. That will give you a sense of the general audience. If you’re a freshmen, for instance, you should be wary of core classes dominated by upperclassmen who call the class “painless.” Upperclassmen generally have a different notion of workload levels at Harvard than freshly minted freshmen.
If a class is dominated by concentrators and you’re considering it as an elective, realize that the teaching staff might assume a general knowledge. Also realize, that the course has been “self-selected” by those already interested in the topic, versus those seeking to “become interested.”
5) Note the distribution of scores for the category breakouts
Look at how many people gave a course a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 for a given category. Let’s take “difficulty” as a metric. It received an overall 3.0 (which is decent by Harvard standards), but you notice that there are no 1’s and 2’s, a large clump of 3’s, a handful of 4’s and a handful of 5’s. This is a sign that while perhaps half found it an “okay” difficulty, there were quite a few kids that struggled with it.
I would then check out who the people taking the classes are, and sort of do a rough mental calculation, assuming that the freshmen are the ones who gave it a more difficult score, in order to determine about how many other upperclassmen found it difficult.
I would also figure out the percentage of students who found it more difficult than average and try to envision the likelihood that I would fall in that group of students who took the class, depending on my own familiarity with the topic etc.
Ideally, I’d like to see a class where most of the students agree with the “average” difficulty and workload ratings, with perhaps a few outliers on either side.
6) Most reviews have a general “theme”
Just read through the write-up and try not to pay too much attention to the percentages. If you read a lot of positive adjectives, that’s a sign of a great class. If you get a sense of general discontent, then that’s obviously a bad sign.
Then make a general note of the repeated themes. A few of the more common negative ones are: poor sections/section leaders, high difficulty, unclear expectations, disorganization, too much workload.
If a class is outstanding (lots of excellent’s, best professor ever, most recommending it, etc.) except for a negative theme or too, then chances are it will be a pretty decent class unless you have a personal pet peeve against a particular negative. Personally, I dislike disorganization strongly in my classes.
7) Understand what might improve
New courses are generally “disorganized,” but they generally improve with time as the professors become more familiar.
A “difficult” class probably won’t become any less difficult (except for a few rare exceptions). However, a “painless” class might become more difficult. (Professors don’t like it when their classes are called “easy.”)
Professors generally don’t change. If one class of students found him “interesting,” he’ll probably stay “interesting.” Ditto with other adjectives.
Comments about class notes and PowerPoints may or may not get improved or added. Some professors just don’t like giving out lecture notes like candy. Others are more easily persuaded to make their PowerPoints more informative for future reference.
Section leaders and section trends are iffy. With large classes, it’s always going to be hit or miss because of sheer numbers. Smaller classes tend to be a little more consistent since grad students generally take a few years to graduate and there are a few “types” of grad students that exist predominantly for a given academic topic.
Watch out if a class gets overwhelming good reviews and the you don’t find a seat the first day of class! This means that the head TF will be grabbing new section leaders to the best of their abilities, enticing them with money and the excitement of teaching Harvard undergrads. Generally, these new section leaders are more iffy on their own teaching skills.
8) What to watch out for
If a completely new professor is teaching a class, DISREGARD that review immediately. Professors really make or break classes.
If that new professor has actually taught another course at Harvard, breathe some sigh of relief. Then check to see if she or he has taught a Q Guide reviewed class and really use *that* to understand how the class you want to take will be.
If that new professor is NEW to Harvard, be wary. Try to look him or her up at ratemyprofessor.com or just via a google search. A lot of new to Harvard professors end up making a class overly difficult (even for Harvard students).
Similarly, because they are unfamiliar with our university’s weird policies and traditions, your Head TF will be the dominant figure when it comes to academic logistics like grades (generally, more so in pset-type classes).
If you are still considering a class with a new or new-ish professor, shop it. Professors generally don’t improve in their lecturing styles over time, and they’ll be presenting their best during shopping period. Also, realize that a lot of components (beyond lectures) can make-or-break a course, e.g. problem sets, midterms, papers etc.
(Disclaimer: I’m a little biased against completely new professors because of really bad class I stayed in until add/drop. Great lecturer, except when it came to the details, which was all that mattered, which wasn’t taught, and everything was generally disorganized and lacking [no practice midterms, what?]. But that’s just my opinion. A lot of GREAT professors have taught and *stayed* because students loved them. Professor Miron is a great example.)
9) Use the Q Guide wisely
Use the Q Guide as a guide to shopping. It will help narrow down courses, and it will give you some insight for the classes you’ve just shopped. Use it as sort of a double check for your general gut intuitions about a class. If the first lecture was great, but the Q Guide bugs you that the tests are excessively hard, then you might have to reevaluate.
10) Friends are better than the Q Guide
Duh. But, if you know someone who has taken the class. Go bug them. Ask them honestly how much experience they had coming into it, what they think the real deal is. Similarly, watch out for people who are completely biased one way or the other.
Just as this entry is telling you to take the reviews in the Q in context, take your friends’ feedback in context as well. (Don’t ask a math lover for a QR recommendation.)