On ‘Student Evaluations of Professors’, Again

Well we all know they’re bad.  Now there’s reason to understand that they are bad all around.

Research on student evaluations of teaching suggests that the gender and age bias most colleges pride themselves on avoiding contaminate those evaluations, along with other nonacademic factors — like “sexiness.” Since many institutions of higher learning use these surveys to determine whether faculty keep their jobs or get raises, their unreliability matters. But the impact these student reviews have on the quality of education raises even more troubling issues: Students give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.

Instructors who figure this out could give higher grades to secure tenure or a bigger raise. Grade inflation offers persuasive evidence that some faculty members have succumbed to this temptation. In other words, standards decline, so students learn less as the cost of their education rises. Ironically, this happens because students are now considered customers, so colleges want to keep them happy.

Evaluations encourage students to place total responsibility for the quality of their education on their instructors. I first encountered them in 1968, when I began my first full-time job, as an instructor of American literature. I had just finished a year as a graduate teaching assistant, during which students debated the reading among themselves and did not hesitate to argue with me once class began. I enjoyed these encounters enormously and suspect my students did, too. So, I was shocked in my first American-literature class as an instructor to discover that the students refused to participate in class, even after I threatened them with a longer syllabus unless they did so.

I got a terrible rating, and its publication humiliated me. The ignorant comment that I needed approval so badly that I asked questions and usually accepted and worked with the responses remains imprinted on my brain 50 years later.

Go read it all.  And if you are in Administration, discuss it with your board.  These evaluations are poison.  Their proponents are the academic equivalent of anti-vaxxers.  With thanks to Roberta Mazza for pointing it out.