Last week, the Yale faculty voted in favor of a long overdue revamping of the end-of-semester course evaluation procedure. The new system replaces Yale’s longstanding method of facilitating thoughtful student-to-teacher feedback: sheets of open-ended questions given to — though not always collected from — students in the final minutes of the final class of the term.
According to the new proposal, in order to see their grades online, Yalies will have to respond to six questions about each of their courses — three short answer, asking students to evaluate the course, instructor and teaching assistant; two numerical, asking students to rank workload and general quality of the course on a 1-to-5 scale; and one yes-or-no question, a useful relic from the old system, asking students if they would recommend the course to a friend.
The first three questions will rightly only be visible to professors, department chairs and directors of undergraduate study. The second three will be made available to students as well. However limited in scope, the answers will constitute a much-needed University-provided shopping guide for the next year, giving students access to a very basic critique of virtually every class offered.
Of course, the online plan is not foolproof.
Because students must fill out the evaluations before getting their grades, there is the possibility of site-slowing traffic jams beginning once grades become accessible online. The potential scenario looks similar to the online Courseinfo debacle of this fall: frustrated students will have to wait hours or days to access transcripts often already delayed by professors turning in grades late. Students might rush through the questions just as many do with the current paper system. Others might just wait to get their grades in the mail.
Because department chairs and directors of undergraduate study will have access to numerical ratings entered by students, professors — particularly untenured ones — might tailor their teaching with rankings in mind. The potential scenario is that of Big Brother Yale: with the threat of low numbers looming at the end of the semester, junior faculty might make their classes easier in order to coax students into giving them high marks.
Because the new paperless plan allows professors and teaching assistants the opportunity to create and distribute supplemental evaluation forms, students could be left filling out three times the paperwork. The potential scenario looks a lot like the old course evaluation system: not knowing what, in particular, is taken seriously or how much is actually read, many students fill out the forms without much thought, just to get them done.
But unlike the old system, the new one is comprehensive and clutter-free. And it has tremendous potential to change the way students and professors approach year-end feedback by making the process more convenient for all.
Just like any program dependent on cooperation, the online course evaluation proposal will not work if students log in all at once or if professors try to fix or supplement the system. But if everyone takes it seriously and answers honestly, six questions may be just enough to actually be helpful.