Course evaluations still don’t make the grade

Every semester, Yale’s course evaluation system admirably collects the exact information students want when choosing their classes. The only problem is that in many cases, undergraduates never see it.

As far as we can tell, Yale’s course evaluation system does an excellent job of providing departments with the ability to track how well instructors perform in the classroom. But by choosing to post only a small subset of those reviews, the system fails miserably as a tool to help students pick their classes. Even as it prides itself on giving undergraduates a chance to shop their courses, Yale effectively throws away one of the best opportunities it has to make shopping period better.

The evaluation system seems to operate under the most unrealistic of assumptions: that information about a class is only relevant to students if the course is exactly the same as one offered in the past two years. So if a professor who has taught at Yale for 30 years returns from a sabbatical, a student shopping his class may have no access to reviews of his class — even if it has been offered dozens of times before. Likewise, an old evaluation of an instructor’s teaching style in a lecture is deemed useless if she is instead teaching a seminar this semester.

Equally frustrating is the fact that evaluations are only accessible to undergraduates for a few weeks at the beginning of each semester. The most obvious flaw with this policy is that it prevents students from finding any useful information about seminars if they are required to pre-register months in advance. And for students selecting majors or choosing a long-term course of study, evaluations would seem to be an ideal tool to use year-round, not just in the chaos of shopping period.

In addition, even as students are required to review their teaching assistants after each class they take, that information is never made available. In many classes, the quality of section can be as important for students as a professor’s lectures. If a TA returns to teach another section, it seems only reasonable that students should be able to read evaluations of his or her past performance.

The most frustrating aspect of the current evaluation system is that Yale has already done the hard part. By requiring students to submit their evaluations before viewing their grades online, Yale has created an ingenious process for ensuring that students actually fill out the forms. As a result, the University has already achieved the difficult task of compiling complete reviews of every class offered through Yale College. The next step — and it is an easy one by comparison — is to simply make that information more available. The easiest solution we can imagine is to create a new course evaluation site that offers year-round access, for anyone with a NetID, to all recent evaluations for classes taught by current Yale faculty.

Yale has put time and energy into designing an effective course evaluation system. We just wish students could take advantage of it.

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