Turning around our dismal course evaluation system

Yale College rightly prides itself on having a research faculty that pays unusually close attention to undergraduate teaching. But there is a bizarre lapse in our system in terms of student course evaluations. Course evaluation at Yale is so dysfunctional that we recently received pointedly negative comments during an otherwise routine re-accreditation exercise carried out by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Our current system is an embarrassment and must be improved.

Over the past few years, the Teaching and Learning Committee has conducted a number of experiments in Web-based course evaluations. Our initial results provided both good and bad news.

The good news was the remarkably high quality of the comments. Instead of simply scrawling that the course in question either “rocks” or “sucks” as the case may be, students sitting at home at their keyboards were often moved to write detailed and substantive discussions of their classroom experience. A number of instructors reported that these thoughtful comments provided more useful information about their teaching styles in a single year than decades of in-class forms.

The bad news was that relatively few students participated, in some cases only a quarter of the class. Thus while the quality of the evaluations was high, the quantity was unacceptably low.

The breakthrough came in the form of a suggestion from last year’s undergraduate members of the Teaching and Learning committee. They pointed out that after the semester many students frequently, perhaps even compulsively, go online to see if their grades are available. So they suggested that we might tie the availability of online grades to the completion of an online course evaluation.

Last spring we tried this out with a few courses, and the response was remarkable. Over 90 percent of enrolled students filled out the forms, a higher response rate than for the current system. Thus the familiarity of our student committee members with undergraduate lifestyles has shown us how to combine the high quality of online evaluations with near-universal participation.

The Teaching and Learning Committee has therefore proposed to extend this system to all courses with enrollments of five or more in Yale College (with tiny courses, “anonymity” becomes problematic). This proposal will be voted on at an upcoming faculty meeting, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

Our experiments showed that students will write about whatever concerns them regardless of the phrasing or intent of the question, and these comments provide the most useful information for instructors. Therefore our proposed online form will have only a few questions, most of which call for comments rather than numerical responses. Faculty will be able to add a question or two specific to their courses, and any instructor who desires additional information is free to use class time to distribute their own forms that go beyond the college-wide system.

We also propose that some of the information obtained through the new system be made available to students through the Online Course Information System. While the primary goal of course evaluations is to help instructors improve their teaching, it’s clear that students can make good use of the comments of their peers as they select from the exuberant abundance of the Yale College curriculum.

To my colleagues who may be squeamish about exposing student comments on their teaching, I would point out that an online Course Critique exists whether we like it or not — how much better to have a system that collects information under controlled circumstances and provides it only to those with a valid Yale NetID. To students I would say, take this seriously — those silly comments advocating “Hot TA in Leather Day” as a welcome course improvement aren’t funny, and will drown out the more thoughtful voices of your peers.

While improving the student course evaluation system is crucial, I hope that this marks the beginning, not the end, of a renewed discussion about the evaluation of teaching at Yale College. Student opinion, while valuable, should not be the only source of information and suggested improvements for teaching. The faculty review each other’s research in exquisite detail for every appointment and promotion, and many times in between — surely our teaching deserves the same thoughtful consideration.



Charles Bailyn ’81 is a professor of astronomy and chairman of the Yale College Teaching and Learning Committee.

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