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Yonah Lieberman: Reevaluate evaluations

By Yonah Lieberman, Opinion Columnist
Published November 29, 2012

At 2:16 a.m. on Thursday morning, as I was just starting a major assignment due the same day, I got a mysterious e-mail. It opened like this: “You've been hearing from your teachers all term. Now your teachers want to hear from you.”

My eyes lit up. My heart skipped a beat. Some things that immediately ran through my head: “My teachers want to hear from me?” and “What an incredible opportunity!” and “Wow, I feel special.”

Then I promptly marked the email as “Unread” and went back to work.

As students, we talk about our classes a lot. Sometimes it’s to praise an inspiring teacher. Usually it’s not.

Instead, it’s to complain about a boring lecture or an unwanted assignment. If, god forbid, I was a statistics major, I might choose to analyze the correlation of the amount of time spent complaining about a class and the proximity of the due date for the next major assignment.

But once a semester, we get our chance to take our complaints straight to the source. Once a semester, we get a direct line to our professors. And the best part? It’s totally and completely anonymous.

That’s right, I’m talking about end-of-semester course evaluations.

For a moment, let’s forget about the people who fill out course evaluations to say positive things about their classes. Those students may exist. But because they’re a minority on this campus, I won’t bother writing about them since they clearly don’t matter.

There is, of course, the issue of whether or not professors and departments actually consider our critiques. There are certain required classes for concentrations that seem to be universally despised year-in and year-out. On that note I simply have to say that I trust professors. As students, we have no other recourse.

The other side of the coin is getting students to actually fill out the evaluations. If I had to guess, I would say about 20 percent of campus regularly fills out course evaluations and another 15 to 20 percent of students do them when particularly motivated — either by complete admiration or utter hatred. The question is: Why doesn’t most of campus take the time to evaluate classes?

There are two reasons.

First and foremost, the timing of the evaluations couldn’t be any worse. They open two weeks before the first day of finals and close the day after our last day of classes. For students, that’s the busiest time of the year. We have exams to prepare for, final projects to present and semester-long research papers due. Seriously — could there be a more poorly chosen stretch of time?

Every year, I get no less than six e-mails from CTools reminding me fill out the evaluations. Six! That’s more reminders than I get to “pay the damn utilities bill, already!” And every year I see the e-mails, mentally remind myself to do it later, and mark them “Unread.” I don’t skip it because I don’t want to fill out the evaluation. I skip it because I probably have a paper due the next day or a massive project to finish up before next week.

A second reason for the low participation is that students have no incentive to complete the course evaluations. We all have opinions to share about each of our classes — but are we motivated enough to actually log in to CTools and fill out the form? The answer is almost always no, partly because of the horrible timing and partly because we don’t get any direct benefits from participating — at the very least, we get the satisfaction that future students will benefit.

I propose a change in a system that’s clearly not working. First, instead of closing the evaluations before finals begin, keep them open until two days after the last day of finals. This way, people can actually get back to them once they have time.

Second, to encourage participation, students should only be able to see their grades for the course after they have filled out the evaluation. Don’t force everyone to complete the detailed form — make the required section a simple 10 questions on a one-to-five scale. Keep the rest of the form intact so people can choose to fill it out if they’d like. It will take maybe two minutes per course and create the personal investment needed.

I’m not claiming to have all the answers — these are just suggestions. But it’s a conversation we need to be having. Our University is one of the best in the world. It’s about time that our course evaluation system reflects that excellence.

Yonah Lieberman can be reached at yonahl@umich.edu.
Follow him on Twitter @YonahLieberman.


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