To the Editor:
As chair of the Teaching and Learning Committee, which is currently reviewing Yale’s online course evaluation system, I write to respond to an article and an opinion piece in Tuesday’s News. The article describes the Yale College Council’s efforts to create an evaluation system for teaching fellows. In fact, such an evaluation system already exists as part of the current OCE system, and it is taken very seriously by TFs, instructors and departments. Many TFs also supplement this by asking for evaluations midway through the course. What the YCC seems to be concerned about (although I don’t know for sure, since the YCC never raised the issue when contacted by our committee for their input) is not the lack of a TF evaluation system, but rather the lack of feedback to undergraduates of the results of that system.
But it isn’t clear that such a feedback system would really help students identify strong TFs. In many departments, TFs rarely teach the same course twice, and it is often true that TFs perform quite differently in different courses. Mentoring for TFs by the instructor and department are often key factors in TF performance, so student feedback to the instructor and department chair (and to other students) on the regular course evaluation forms may be more helpful than comments on individual TFs. Also, TFs work hard to improve — their careers are on the line, after all — and there have been many cases in which a TF who was weak in his or her first attempt rapidly becomes one of the department’s greatest teaching assets. Thus an evaluation system that focusses on the past performance of TFs in other courses may be highly misleading. This is especially true for a “ratemyprofessor” scheme in which the OCE’s high response rate and screening for legitimate students are absent.
I would like to commend Pat Ward on his approach to evaluating courses he dislikes. His instinct that a detailed dispassionate dissection is more likely to achieve results than online invective is entirely correct. Faculty and department chairs read these things carefully, some even obsessively, but few of us pay any attention to screaming abuse festooned with capital letters and exclamation points. Knowing that we “SUCK!!!” isn’t helpful — knowing ways in which we might improve is.
Ward’s further point that not enough is done at Yale to improve mediocre teaching (and, I would add, to turn good teaching into great teaching) also strikes me as correct. But I would suggest that the first step should not be to take drastic action on the basis of the course evaluations, but rather to supplement student opinion with other metrics of teaching excellence. Student opinion provides only one perspective on the quality of teaching. Some courses, for example introductory courses that fulfill some kind of requirement, may receive bad evaluations despite outstanding teaching performances. There are teaching methods that generate good learning outcomes despite being unpopular with students. It is also widely believed that the easiest route to strong evaluations is lenient grading. Thus, acting solely on the basis of student opinion may lead strong teachers away from teaching introductory courses, away from pedagogically effective teaching methods, and increase grade inflation. To really improve teaching at Yale will require that we base our actions on more than just the OCE system.
Finally, let me note that student opinion really does count — one of the primary student complaints about the current OCE system is that it is tied to the course selection process, and the evaluations are therefore only available during shopping period. On the basis of student input, our committee has recommended that a new interface be developed that is tied to the online course information system (the online Blue Book), which is available all year round. This new system has been developed, and is scheduled to debut this summer, for the 2007-’08 academic year.
Charles Bailyn ’81
The writer is a professor of astronomy and the chairman of the Yale College Teaching and Learning Committee.