There is an old adage about elections — if you don’t vote, you don’t count. Though the scope may be different, the same could be said about filling out end-of-term course evaluations.
Over the next few weeks, as e-mails from the registrar’s office will remind you, undergraduates will have the opportunity to weigh in on the experiences they had in each class over the last semester through the university’s two-year-old online course evaluation system. Many students are probably familiar with the immediate trade off for completing their evaluations — if you don’t, you can’t view your grades online. But the online, anonymous evaluations are more important to Yale education than speeding up the grade-viewing process.
Perhaps foremost, professors actually read them. According to the registrar’s office, over 85 percent of instructors viewed their evaluations from last term. If you have ever been in a class where a professor mentioned feedback from the last time he or she taught the course — that the readings were too heavy, or particular concepts needed to be better explained — you have probably experienced the benefits of a class that has received student feedback. Most professors do care that students are learning and appreciate suggestions about what worked and did not. They may not adopt every suggestion or change every quirk, but online evaluations remain perhaps the most effective way to offer anonymous feedback on your courses.
But evaluations also benefit students. Under a program piloted this semester, students can now view past responses to some — not all — evaluation questions on the online course selection Web site used to compile schedules during shopping period. Viewing other students’ evaluations of classes can help inform shopping period decisions, particularly since they can give more detailed impressions of the class than a syllabus or two-line blurb in the Blue Book. But the success of this system relies on students’ evaluating classes in the first place.
Some people say they don’t feel strongly about a course and so they don’t have much to say on evaluations. But even these impressions are key in evaluating a course. Even if you don’t think your opinions about a class are strong, widespread participation is key to making the system succeed. When classes receive low response rates from students, it is fairly easy to chalk up unfavorable responses to the fact that only students with extreme views filled out their evaluations. When more students evaluate classes, everyone’s response carries more weight.
Moreover, evaluating classes can be a chance to take stock of what you really got out of the class, or didn’t, based on your own expectations and goals going in. Perhaps after 13 weeks of talking about globalization you still don’t really understand what globalization is. Or perhaps you’ve realized you would have preferred a more historically based approach to political theory. It may seem like an obvious point, but often the act of evaluating something in more detail than the typical after-class comment to a friend can allow you to gain a sense of closure about the class, and to think about how it fits in your overall Yale experience.
One of the evaluation questions is designed to provide feedback for teaching assistants or teaching fellows, if your class included one. These are particularly important, since graduate students are in the process of learning to teach and will soon be looking for jobs. Positive evaluations can be significant in their job searches, while feedback about techniques that did not work so well can be even more useful in their evolution as teachers.
Yale, like other major universities, is often criticized for placing too much emphasis on scholarship, rather than teaching skills or interactions with students, in faculty hiring and promotion decisions. While filling out course evaluations will not necessarily change the way Yale hires professors, it is our way as students to assert the importance of teaching at Yale, whether because a particular class has greatly changed how we think about the world or because we expected more from a given semester. Undergraduates have few institutionalized opportunities to weigh in on their education; it is worth taking advantage of this one.
Arielle Levin Becker is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. She is a student member of the Teaching and Learning Committee. She is a former News Editor for the Yale Daily News.