A set of recommendations to alter the structure of and access to online course evaluations will be implemented this fall, following approval by the faculty in a meeting last week.
The report, complied last year by the Teaching and Learning Committee, states that faculty members, non-faculty who sign students’ schedules, chairs of curricular councils, and the Course of Study Committee should all have access to certain parts of the evaluations. It also calls for the addition of two questions about whether the course will be applied toward a student’s major or distributional requirements, and provides guidelines about how to use the evaluations in the context of faculty hiring, promotion and salaries.
Astronomy and physics professor Charles Bailyn, who chaired the committee, said the decision to make the results of the evaluations more widely available will help faculty members advise students and allow them to better understand why students enroll in the courses they do.
“It seemed odd that the college is providing information about Yale College courses to undergraduates that was withheld from faculty,” Bailyn said. “Also, it’s very useful in advising to see why students are making the choices they do. Since students clearly do rely on the evaluations in making their decisions, it seemed wise to make sure that their advisors can see the same information.”
The existing online course evaluation system is used for all classes with at least five students. According to the report, the online system has a response rate of about 80 percent, far higher than the response rate for the pencil-and-paper method used until 2002. The report attributes this difference to the fact that students’ grades are not released until students either complete the forms or specifically decline to do so.
Bailyn said the questions to be added to the course evaluations, which ask whether a student is taking the course to satisfy his or her major or distributional requirements, will be useful to University administrators when they evaluate distributional requirements. He said if a course is primarily being used to satisfy a distributional requirement, for example, the evaluations will likely be different from comments on courses that cater to students’ particular interests.
The report also provides specific guidelines for how course evaluations should be used to assess a professor’s teaching style. Course evaluations should not simply be read at face value, the report says; rather, factors such as the composition of the class and why students are taking it should be taken into account.
History Department chair Paul Freedman said his department takes the student evaluations very seriously and looks at teaching when considering a faculty member for promotion.
“If there’s a pattern of problems — if somebody is not responsive or disorganized or didn’t hand the work back — we’ll talk to the person and try to see what’s going on,” Freedman said.
The report also calls for additional resources to be devoted to helping faculty improve their teaching skills.
The Graduate School’s evaluation system, which is structured very similarly to the undergraduate one, has been substantially less successful, with a response rate between 27 and 50 percent, the report said. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said this discrepancy is due to a combination of factors, including a lower incentive for students to receive their grades.
“We would like more students to respond, but we have a quite different system because there isn’t such an instant connection between grades and the response,” he said.
In addition, the Teaching and Learning Committee reported that graduate students tend to receive information on courses directly from their peers rather than online evaluations. The committee recommended a further examination of the Graduate School evaluation system in the future.
But Butler said the response rate among graduate students has been increasing steadily and that faculty members use the information from the evaluations to improve their seminars and alter the contents of courses to address student need.
Bailyn said that while last year’s review — which was stipulated in the 2002 resolution that created the online system — was comprehensive, he suspects additional suggestions and problems will arise soon. No firm date was set in the report for the next formal review of the system.