Colleges need better ways to evaluate courses

Lauren Williams's picture
Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Should Yale University have shut down a website allowing users to compare student evaluations of the university’s courses?

Of course not. The students should have the right to receive that information, and they were rightly scandalized when the site was blocked. But the evaluations themselves don’t say very much about educational quality. Indeed, nobody really knows how well professors teach — or how much their students learn — in college. And that might be the biggest scandal of all.

The controversy at Yale began after two students made it easier to access the numerical evaluations of courses. These data were already available through Yale’s official course-selection site. But the students’ tool made it much simpler to compare the ratings for each course — and each professor.

That’s what led administrators to shut down the site this month. It would encourage students to select courses based solely on raw scores, officials said, rather than on the more nuanced student comments that are also collected in the evaluation process. And helping students choose courses wasn’t the real goal of that process, anyhow. Yale collects student evaluations “as a way of helping faculty members improve their teaching,” one administrator wrote, “not as a course selection tool.”

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