Negative course evaluations are not enough to fix poor teaching

Final exams … anxious waiting … final grades. During the last two years, the stretch of anxious waiting has also been marked by a strange new routine. I refer not to the general filling out of course evaluations, a task — nay, a duty — with which we are confronted before we can receive our final grades. I do not write to criticize this evaluation system, which has received plenty of criticism; I write because there is a problem much greater than the failings of the evaluation system. My concern is with the failings of some Yale classes.

My strange new routine is writing negative course evaluations. The approach of some students is surely the short, passion-filled response. Some of these can be seen on the part of the course evaluation other students can read. There are more than a few responses such as “I hated this class,” “I hate this professor” and “This is the worst class at Yale!” Although my reaction to some classes is similar, I have never written a review including any of these phrases.

My negative evaluations are long and methodical. I even usually make a brief outline before writing them. While this might seem extreme, I am convinced that a negative evaluation will only be taken seriously if it references specific failings of the class and professor, if it refrains from emotional responses, and if it is overwhelmingly clear that the author is qualified to judge the professor’s work. I refuse to be dismissed as someone who didn’t understand the subject or was merely bitter about receiving bad grades.

One may think my effort in all this is wasted or excessive. It probably is. But after enduring a semester of a badly taught class or an unqualified or unconcerned professor, a negative evaluation is the only recourse a student has. Therefore, in my responses I am incredibly forthright and, when merited, ruthless.

I described this procedure as a routine, and it has indeed become something I complete at least once, occasionally twice, each semester. While I could be a statistical outlier in having 20 to 25 percent of my classes conclude as disappointments, anecdotal evidence and the online course evaluations that I can see suggest otherwise. Courses taught only once are not even visible on the evaluation system, and if the departments and professors take any advice at all from negative evaluations, at least some bad classes are never taught again and their reviews never see the light of day. Therefore, the visible evaluations are necessarily biased toward being positive.

Obviously one should stay away from negatively reviewed classes, and one does have the opportunity to evaluate classes during shopping period, but neither method is sufficient to avoid bad classes. It is surely a great moment of classroom justice when a roomful of students votes with its feet and collectively abandons a poorly designed or unreasonably demanding class during a professor’s introduction. Unfortunately, some negatively reviewed classes are required for a major or are among few options for fulfilling a distributional requirement. Other classes pass the first-day test only to prove abominable later on.

The fact that poorly reviewed classes continue to be taught by the same professors suggests that the Yale administration generally and the departments specifically do not care enough about student feedback. Good teachers far outnumber bad ones, and perhaps for this reason, there seems to be little institutional mechanism designed to control the quality of class instruction. The student evaluations seem to be given little weight. Yale College offers teaching prizes, but because of their scarcity, they can only motivate those who are already near the top. They offer no incentives to encourage bad teachers to improve.

Criticism is not easy to accept, but it is both necessary and beneficial. At an educational institution, high-quality teaching must be a primary objective. Yale does not accept mediocrity or deficiency in its admissions; it should accept neither in its teaching. In the face of poor-quality professors, students have little recourse beyond course evaluations; they cannot get back the hours they wasted in the class. Therefore, this winter break, I took up my routine again. I can only hope professors and administrators take my evaluations seriously. It is a routine I will dutifully continue, but one I neither wish to nor should need to complete.

Patrick Ward is a junior in Branford College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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