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Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Credit: Robert Hsu

Advanced registration. It’s that one time of year you can dress up in different class schedules, and no one can say anything about it.

Coming into Penn, I used to think PCR meant “polymerase chain reaction,” a technique used to amplify DNA. I soon learned that it was actually Penn Course Review, the course and professor evaluation guide which seemed to be the bible by which many students made course decisions.

After two years at Penn, I can see the value of having a resource like Penn Course Review, but I wonder if putting too much faith in Penn Course Review prevents us from taking more difficult classes that may be more challenging and fulfilling or making our own judgments about professors.

I remember dreading my general chemistry course second semester of my freshman year because there was only one professor teaching it, who was described as boring and dull, with lackluster ratings and reviews. I was expecting 2-3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to be nap time. I was more than wrong.

Although he rambled at times (and I nodded off more than a couple times), I had never had a professor who explained abstract concepts so well or worked so hard for his students. He gave us detailed notes, held frequent office hours and even stayed late after the end of exam review sessions to answer questions. Maybe I’m just too nice of a person, but this wouldn’t be the only time my experiences didn’t completely match up with my Penn Course Review expectations.

Just like going on a first date, it’s natural to ask around to see what others think about the person. But no date with the same person goes the same for everyone — ultimately, we have to evaluate professors and classes based on our own unique experiences and values.

“People are afraid to take classes with high difficulty ratings,” Engineering senior Cristina Sorice said. “The class might not get great reviews, but you might find it to be worthwhile despite popular opinion,” she added.

We’re Penn students, after all. We didn’t come here just to get by. We worked hard to come to a place that would force us to think harder than we ever had. By using the difficulty ratings on Penn Course Review, we could easily be cheating ourselves of the education we could be having.

Using Penn Course Review to pick your courses is a bit like using Amazon to pick out which computer to buy or Yelp to determine which new restaurant to try. As consumers (whether as students or in the real world), we want information to make such an important decision. Of course, some information about a class available through Penn Course Review is better than no information at all.

But even Yelp or Amazon can be inaccurate at times — angry customers may post more often or there may not be enough ratings to be able to conclusively judge a product. Penn Course Review is an ingenious idea with value, but we should still be wary of using it as our primary decision-making tool.

Most of us often click straight down the course evaluation without thinking twice about a question (I’ll admit that I do that sometimes). After all, we are sent several evaluations right before finals hit. There’s also a response bias — those who attribute their poor performance to the class itself or their professor may be more motivated to respond than people who generally liked the course.

For those looking to pick classes without being overly reliant on Penn Course Review, Sorice suggests “talking to upperclassmen or perhaps people with similar interests. There’s a chance that their opinions will align with Penn Course Review, but you know, I don’t think it hurts to try anyway.”

Perhaps putting all of our class eggs into the Penn Course Review basket isn’t the wisest choice after all. As with any first date, you can Google him or her all you want and there can be both good and bad surprises — but ultimately you’ll be making the decision about the second date based on that first one.

Robert Hsu is a College and Wharton junior from Novi, Mich. His email address is Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

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