The Case for Student Access to Course Evaluations
In the days leading up to registration, students scramble to find out as much information as possible about the courses they may take and their respective professors. WhatsApp and Facebook groups blow up with requests for details, older students and alumni are bombarded with questions and RateMyProfessors.com is scoured, all in the hopes of acquiring a clearer picture of what our course experience will be like the following semester. And while these sources are sometimes helpful, more often than not, students are left with only a couple of anecdotes or two ambiguously worded reviews from 2006 that only confuse us more.
However, there is a resource that is totally untapped that could actually provide students with the answers to our questions. At the end of each semester (and in Syms, in the middle of the semester as well) students complete course evaluations — anonymous surveys in which students provide feedback to the administration on the classes they took. These evaluations have the potential to be a substantive dataset that can guide students in making informed decisions and should therefore be made accessible to the student body.
This idea is not my own, nor is it revolutionary. Other colleges around the country, including Columbia University and NYU, have implemented similar programs. In fact, this idea isn’t even foreign to YU. In 2011, The Commentator reported that the Student Academic Affairs Committee (SAAC), a now-defunct branch of the student government, alongside four Yeshiva College professors, had a developed plan to make this suggestion a reality for Yeshiva College (YC). Yet a follow-up article written in 2013 described how that progress had stalled in the years since. Nine years since the SAAC’s proposal, YU’s undergraduate students deserve better.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that these evaluations will be able to flawlessly assess a teacher’s abilities. Of course, like most reviews, there is often a strong sampling bias of respondents; students who either had an extremely positive or negative experience are more likely to complete the surveys. But if students knew that their fellow peers would be examining their words, the response rate among all students could increase significantly and the evaluations would be taken more seriously. More evaluations completed would create a much richer dataset that would also fulfill the administration’s original intentions for the questionnaires.
My proposal would not magically give students a completely accurate representation of their classroom experience the following semester, but it is certainly better than the status quo. Today, students who have a strong network from their community or their yeshiva/seminary in Israel are at an enormous advantage compared to those from communities that are less represented at YU. For example, there is a tremendous amount of information asymmetry between a student from Teaneck who attended a hesder yeshiva and has three older siblings who attended YU versus a true freshman from Venezuela who is the first in her family to attend our institution. He has many more outlets for course information than the student from a different background.
Yet even the Teaneck student is limited to a few bits of skewed anecdotal evidence from peers who come from a similar environment as him. Making these evaluations available will enable students from all backgrounds to have equal access to the opportunity to make an educated choice when creating their schedules.
The release of the evaluations must be done with the utmost sensitivity to faculty. Emphasis must be placed on laws of Lashon Hara and the gravity of writing anything remotely negative about a professor. Students should only respond if the information is truly l’to’elet, for a constructive purpose.
I also do not believe that evaluations should be made public for the world to see, nor am I advocating for students to write reviews on RateMyProfessors. Instead, only current students should have access to the evaluations in a password-protected database. Although this information must be kept secure to protect our faculty members, it is vital information that can greatly benefit our students.
The current system in which we complete a scavenger hunt before registration is absurd. Students should have the right to make informed decisions regarding their education. I urge the student body to advocate for this important issue. To the administration, I hope this can be the renewal of a meaningful conversation that needs to take place on campus. In the meantime, I call on all the wonderful professors at YU to pledge to release the course evaluations of your respective classes moving forward and help guide us on our academic journeys.