YCC to evaluate teaching assistants

The Yale College Council plans to investigate section and teaching assistant quality, starting with a survey of student opinion to be sent out next week.

The YCC began looking into the issue because of a perceived disparity in section quality across departments in Yale College, YCC President Rich Tao ’10 said. YCC members have begun meeting with administrators to gauge faculty opinions on sections and teaching assistants before designing the final survey. Administrators said they will take the YCC’s recommendations into account while they continue conducting a self-study — part of the University’s reaccreditation process — that started this year.

“Personally, I’ve had a wide range of experiences with sections,” Tao said. “I’ve had bad sections. I’ve had phenomenal sections. In an ideal world, all sections should be great, enriching experiences.”

Deputy Provost for Faculty Development Judith Chevalier said a group of faculty and administrators — the Faculty Standards Committee, which she chairs — will conduct a similar investigation of sections and TAs, independent of the YCC initiative.

The committee’s report will not make specific recommendations for changes to Yale College, she said. Instead, it will determine areas the committee thinks merit further research.

The committee was created as part of Yale’s reaccreditation process, which requires an extensive self-study of the University, and sections make up only one topic the Faculty Standards Committee plans to explore. Chevalier said she thinks sections are a useful institution, but that the self-study will allow administrators to step back and examine them.

“I think the question is how to go about it,” she said. “I think that’s where the survey comes in — what’s kind of the best format?”

After meeting with Tao and three other students, Chevalier said she found the YCC’s student perspective helpful, adding that the faculty committee will likely use the survey’s findings in its own evaluation.

Tao identified a disparity in quality between mandatory sections and optional sections, saying that the YCC is most interested in looking at potential improvements for optional sections. He offered as possible solutions the cultivation of a stronger relationship between TAs and professors or professor-led sections.

But, Tao added, he will wait for the survey results before making conclusions.

“A solution presupposes a problem and we want to get our finger really on what the problem is,” Tao said. “[The survey] will make the discussion a lot more pertinent, a lot more relevant and a lot more factual.”

Interviews with students confirmed there is a disparity of opinions on the issue of section quality.

Nick Albino ’10 said he thinks discussion sections are more helpful than lectures because of their reduced size. But he said the quality of the section is dependent on the TA.

A TA’s training is crucial to his or her effectiveness, Khadija Khan ’10 said.

“The more trained they are, the better,” Khan said. “Sometimes students are hired who may be specialists in their own fields but don’t really have much teaching experience. That doesn’t help.””

But other students said they rarely go to discussion sections.

Vivek Raman ’11 said for his economics classes, section is unnecessary as long as he does his reading.

“The vast majority of the students don’t go either,” Raman said.

But the four faculty members interviewed did not seem aware of a pervasive discontent among students or of structural flaws in their sections.

“For my classes it works very well,” said Giuseppe Moscarini, an economics professor whose sections are intended to go over problem sets and review material learned in class. “They’re very well attended.”

Moscarini said he has not heard complaints from students, though he said seminar versions of introductory economics courses have been fairly popular.

Those who have taught in the humanities, such as philosophy professor Kenneth Winkler, said the seminar format of humanities sections works successfully for them. The discussion is crucial to students’ learning, Winkler said.

Florian Ploeckl GRD ’09 said he thinks the standard model of an economics section — similar to what Moscarini described — is close to optimal, though he said the YCC survey may provide useful information. But he cautioned against overgeneralizing.

“There are very different approaches to section in different departments,” he said. “As long as the survey takes that into account, it might be a good thing — but if it’s just general then I don’t think there’s much value added.”

Tao said YCC members plan to meet with Butler early next week, after which he will finalize and send out the survey to the student body.

Sohara Mehroze Shachi contributed reporting.

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