Course reviews are scrutinized

Three years after the University implemented an online course evaluation system for undergraduates, students say they have mixed feelings about the program’s usefulness.

The system will be reviewed over the course of the semester to consider changes after the three-year trial period, Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said this week. While most students said they consulted course evaluations during shopping period, several said the evaluations were primarily useful for courses that were universally liked or disliked. The Yale Economic Review launched an independent evaluation system this week in response to perceived problems with the University’s own system.

“When we originally started it, we said we would review its strengths and weaknesses after three years, and we are doing that now this spring,” Salovey said. “I’m very interested in how much information should be made available to students.”

Astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who participated in the design of the evaluation system in 2002, will chair a new committee to review the system this semester. Bailyn said he believes the most important function of the evaluations is to help instructors improve courses for future semesters. Facilitating undergraduate course selection and providing information to be used in making promotion decisions for junior faculty and teaching assistants are secondary goals, he said.

“Personally, I’m pretty happy with it, but I know that both the students and some members of the faculty have a number of suggestions about ways that this can be improved,” Bailyn said.

Some students said they spent at least a few minutes evaluating each of their courses at the end of the semester, but they focused on courses they strongly liked or disliked.

“If I really, really liked the course, I’ll usually spend a lot of time praising the professor,” Jeff Sun ’08 said. “If I really, really hated the course, I’ll spend a lot of time telling why it was bad.”

The tendency to elaborate on extreme viewpoints may explain why students said the evaluations were most useful for avoiding classes with strong negative evaluations. Cain Soltoff ’08 said classes with inconclusive evaluations often had fewer respondents.

“I think it only really helps if there’s one strong sense of it either way,” Kieran Locke ’06 said. “If the class is horrible, I can get that pretty easily from the evaluations.”

Yale Economic Review editor-in-chief Richard Ludlow ’07 said he was disappointed with the amount of time students had been given to access evaluations before shopping period. Last week, when evaluations were still not available through OCS, Ludlow said YER decided to create its own online system, which was announced to economics students over the weekend. As of Tuesday evening, the YER system catalogued 88 evaluations, including 21 for spring-semester courses.

“We hope that will increase, and I think the system will become especially useful when OCS isn’t available, like preregistration,” Ludlow said.

Ludlow said the YER system has the advantage of allowing students to see reviews for any course taught by a certain professor. OCS only allows students to access reviews for courses being offered in a given semester.

But Bailyn said the decision to only show students reviews of a single course avoids misleading comparisons between very different courses, such as seminars and lectures.

“I know, from my own teaching and that of my colleagues, people do a really different job in different kinds of courses,” Bailyn said. “What we didn’t want was students making choices based on a course that is quite different from the one that they are choosing.”

Salovey said the review of the evaluation system will consider what information is provided to students, how long evaluations are accessible, and who should be able to see them.

Currently, responses to three questions from prior evaluations are provided to students through the Online Course Selection program used for scheduling, as long as the instructor and content of the course have not changed. Other answers can only be seen by the instructor, chair, and director of undergraduate studies for the department, in addition to select administrators and committees.

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