Re-evaluating Evaluations

The Editorial Board

Even at a school as academically outstanding as Oberlin, it’s not uncommon to hear students complaining about the ways in which their classes are taught. Often, the first thing a student will do after leaving a frustrating class is to vent to a friend about what exactly needs to be changed about a course; members of the Editorial Board have found themselves spending the length of an unbearable lecture making a mental laundry list of easy things the professor could do to turn a terrible class into a productive one. End-of-semester course evaluations become a fantasy of revenge, a sole outlet through which students can express frustration over a course to someone who has the power to change it.

Why is the system such that these evaluations are reserved for the end of the semester? Vengeance is perhaps the least productive of motivations, and vexations left to build up until the end of the semester will usually be expressed in an exaggerated and unhelpful format. Comments like “I HATED this class” — or, conversely, “I LOVED this class” — do little to effect real change in the way a class is taught.

The motivation to write detailed, balanced critiques once a class is over is justifiably lacking. For the amount we pay for classes, it’s infuriating to withstand 15 weeks of a less-than-stellar professor. Few students love their classmates enough to feel that giving future learners a better experience is a fair exchange for suffering through a bad experience oneself.

The solution to this problem can be found in mid-semester evaluations. Not only do these types of reports encourage productive responses over condemnations — “This could be improved by…” versus “This aspect was terrible” — but they allow a frustration to be voiced before it has had the chance to evolve into anger, and later apathy. Even more importantly, mid-course evaluations allow for students to respond to the specific class they are in, which includes a unique mixture of students, rather than try to evaluate the professor as an entity outside of a single semester. Small group discussions work well for some class groups and poorly for others. This is the kind of problem a student will instantly recognize but a professor may be too set in his or her ways to notice without prompting.

Furthermore, end-of-semester evaluations are handed out after the class final, an environment in which students are usually more than ready to leave. Because the evaluation serves as their ticket out of the lecture hall, students usually rush through the packet, forgoing written comments in favor of circling numbers. A midterm evaluation can be given online, allowing the student to fill it out at home, on a computer and with time to spare.

As an example: Dan Stinebring did just that in Astronomy 100 last fall. In the week before spring break, he arranged an evaluation on Blackboard. Students were given points for filling out the report, as Professor Stinebring could see who had filled one out but not whose name was attached to which. He wrote the evaluation, and the questions were related directly to the class: Do you like the online homework? How fair did you think the last test was? Is the pace we’re going at right for you? This is an example of the “collaborative learning” ideal that the College loves to boast about to prospective students. It is the opposite of cookie-cutter education; it is the integration of student and teacher knowledge to foster a class environment that is truly productive. We as students may not all be great teachers, but most of us are surprisingly adept at identifying what is wrong with a situation and how it can be fixed.

And therein lies a greater problem. It is very, very easy at college to complain and sometimes hard to change what is wrong. Often, it is more comfortable to disengage from a class that one deems as bad, to stop participating and vent to friends outside of class, than to do what one can to make a class better.

We believe the reliance on end-of-term evaluations encourages and exacerbates this withdrawal. Truly bad classes are rare here, but it’s not rare that a student has intelligent and helpful input on how to improve a class. Giving unsolicited advice to a professor is very fragile territory (for good reason), and midterm evaluations provide an appropriate venue for students to share with professors the full extent of their insight.