As midterm nears, some students are congratulating themselves for constructing a solid schedule while others wish they had consulted online course evaluations — a move that may have guided them away from that terrible lecture or painful seminar.
Before students are allowed access to their grades at the end of the semester, they must either complete or opt out of completing evaluations of their classes. This year, more Yalies than ever are choosing the former.
While not all responses are posted for fellow students to review, answers to questions about courses and professors were available to students as they formulated their schedules. When course evaluations were first moved online during the University’s 1997-98 academic year, only one of four students completed the online forms rather than opting out. This year, however, nearly 90 percent of students registered their opinions of the classes they had taken.
Astronomy Department Chairman Charles Bailyn, who served as chair of the Teaching and Learning Committee that developed and refined the online course evaluation system, said more students filled out course evaluations last semester than they did when the forms were hand-written.
“The results seem to be pretty positive,” Bailyn said. “Many faculty have commented that the feedback they receive from students is much more detailed and thoughtful than what was received before, and comes in a much more easily digested format. So I think the current system really represents a major improvement.”
Bailyn said while the evaluations were once a source of information based solely on the small group of students willing to participate, they have become a useful tool for students and faculty alike.
“It had been clear for some time that our old evaluation system needed an overhaul,” Bailyn said. “In fact, one of the accreditation committees criticized Yale for having a system that didn’t work very well. [The Teaching and Learning Committee] discovered that when students do online evaluations, they tend to give much more thoughtful evaluations than when they are just scribbling stuff down at the end of class.”
But Bailyn said the online system was not always successful because many students were choosing not to participate. The committee solved this problem after student members of the committee pointed out the growing popularity of Internet-accessible grades, Bailyn said. The group decided to tie course evaluations to grade access.
Some students said the online evaluations have comprised a large part of their shopping period deliberation process, particularly for smaller classes.
“If the class is a seminar, then I definitely read [the evaluations],” Heather Wittels ’05 said. “But if it’s a 100-person lecture, then I probably won’t read them all.”
Other students said they use the evaluations to help decide how to fill holes in a schedule that is nearly complete.
“I had four difficult courses lined up, and I used the online evaluations to look for a course that would be interesting but not too much of a burden,” Raghav Chopra ’06 said. “While it was helpful talking to other people, the evaluations really let me know what to expect.”
Still other students said they use the evaluations simply to double-check their selections.
“I haven’t used [the evaluations] for any classes in particular,” Anjanine Bonet ’05 said. “But I use them for courses that sound good, where you want to be sure that it’s actually what you’re expecting before you go.”
And some students eschew the evaluations entirely, preferring to rely on word-of-mouth.
“I didn’t really use the online system,” Eddie Walsh ’07 said. “I mostly asked people, like my brother and my friends, what they’d heard about this course or that guy.”
Students who find the evaluations valuable said they try to help the system in kind.
“I put a lot of thought into what I write on the evaluations,” Wittels said. “I write it out ahead of time and then paste it into the evaluation form.”
But even proponents of the system said there are improvements to be made. Wittels said many higher-level classes had no evaluations available online at all.
Bailyn said while the system is not perfect, it is a solid base on which the University can build.
“There may be some further improvements that could be made,” he said. “But I think the basic structure has proved to be a success.”