Student Ratings Bait Profs Into Lowering Standards

In the fall of 1980,  towards the end of my first semester of college teaching, I received a memo saying that on the last day of class I was to hand out the course evaluation forms for students to complete and return.

A few weeks later, the packet of forms they had filled out was stuffed in my mail box. I read through them and was not surprised to find that most of the students who had done reasonably well had rated the course highly and, naturally, that most of those who had done poorly said it was terrible. Some of the comments from students in the latter group were scathing.

In quite a few instances, I wondered, “How would you know the course was so awful – you hardly ever showed up.”

‘Keep ‘em Happy’

By my second year of teaching, I had decided that the freshman and sophomores I taught had nothing useful to say. The evaluations were just a measure of popularity. I didn’t waste time reading them.

Quite a few years later, when I started doing think-tank work on higher education, one of the first books I came across was Generation X Goes to College by Peter Sacks. In his book, Sacks (who frequently writes for Minding the Campus), discussed his first year of teaching journalism at an unnamed but clearly non-selective college. He wanted to teach an academically strong course and demanded quite a lot of writing from his students, all of which he carefully critiqued.

Then came his first course evaluations. After his superiors had read them, Sacks was called in for a meeting. The chairman was concerned that so many students had given the course very low marks. He let Sacks know that he would not be rehired if his evaluations remained so terrible.

Of course, Sacks took that seriously. The next semester he had to produce far higher evaluations. He did so by resorting to what he called “the sandbox experiment,” which meant making the course easier, more fun, and less critical. That worked. After his second semester, Sacks got far higher ratings from his students and saved his job.

Get That 4.7 Average

The importance of student evaluations has not diminished at all in the almost two decades since Sacks wrote his book. Good evidence to show that is found in Stacey Patton’s piece, “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She targets the obsession that grips non-tenured faculty members in a humanities department at a “West Coast research university.” The obsession is with getting at least a 4.7 average on the five-point scale used for course evaluations.

Patton quotes one such professor (who goes by “Janet Wilson,” fearing adverse career repercussions if she used her real name) who says that she and other department members “talk about how to reach 4.7 more than we talk about how to teach.”

There is an abundance of helpful ideas on how to elevate your scores in the article. Here are some of them: bake cookies or brownies for the students, hand out the evaluations when the most irascible student is absent, give the evaluation right after a puff assignment such as “an easy paper where they can talk about themselves,” don’t give students much time to fill out the forms, which increases the likelihood they will just circle all 5s and hurry out, and let students “hand in papers late, retake exams like it’s the DMV, and complete extra credit.”

It’s all sandbox stuff. (I don’t recall that Sacks ever baked goodies for his students; the techniques for buttering up students have no doubt “advanced” since his teaching days.)

Janet Wilson concludes, “We all know we can’t afford to uphold grading standards because of the pressure put on us.”

Exactly, and Patton observes, “Faculty members speak of evaluations’ driving decisions on hiring, promotion, and tenure; adjuncts say they feel paralyzed when a low score can mean a pink slip.”

The Decline and Fall of a College Education

Cookies, si; rigorous grading, no. That’s what American higher education has come to and here is the reason. At many colleges, keeping the students happy is the paramount concern. School officials still pay lip service to academic excellence, but the truth is that revenue maximization is far more important to them.

Happy students are more apt to remain enrolled than are unhappy ones. That’s why faculty members are under pressure to show “good” evaluation numbers, even though that means treating all of the students like little kids.

If most college students were seriously looking for education, they wouldn’t want to be treated that way. If they really wanted to learn to write well, for instance, they wouldn’t object when a professor took a red pen to their drafts and showed them where their writing was poor.

Sadly, few students enter college with a desire to work hard to improve their knowledge and skills. Far more enter college with an entitlement mindset that has them thinking, “I’ve always been told I’m a good student and therefore deserve good grades.” Taking their evaluations seriously only helps to further erode our pitiable academic standards.

Course evaluations might make sense at a level where the students were both dedicated and somewhat knowledgeable about the subject. Professors fortunate enough to teach such students would probably welcome their feedback since it could help them improve the course.  But asking the typical freshman or sophomore to rank a course and comment on it rarely produces any valuable insights. It merely encourages faculty members to worry about their popularity instead of worrying about teaching a sound, challenging course.

It is also worth noting that more than a few dedicated educators who couldn’t stand the “keep ‘em happy” imperative have left teaching. They have been replaced by the brownie bakers, deadline extenders, and extra-credit givers who are content to abase themselves and undermine academic standards for fear of bad evaluations by students who shouldn’t be in college in the first place.


4 thoughts on “Student Ratings Bait Profs Into Lowering Standards

  1. Readers might want to read my: “What Do Student Evaluations Teach?” Perspectives on Political Science, Vol. 22, No. 1
    (Winter, 1993), pp. 29-40. Later it was printed, free of imposed mistakes in The Montana Professor Vol. 5, No. 3 (Fall 1995), pp. 21-29. Augmented since then, you can get a copy from me.
    Roughly speaking, since studying at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, the inquiries I press forward in teaching, conversing, and writing address three matters: the rivalry of philosophy and poetry, the relation of reason and revelation, and the quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. Among my many superior companions, most helpful have been and are: Plato, Montaigne, Nietzsche, the Bible, Rembrandt, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, Shakespeare for the longest time.
    Long stretches with students at Dartmouth, where I proposed a liberal arts honors program, and with students at the University of Dallas, which already had such a liberal arts core and I alone publicly defended, have always advanced my inquiries, as also classes during my Humboldt year in Heidelberg and later in Greifswald for three summer semesters. In all I’ve taught in some five “departments” of the modern fragmented university.
    Since 1998, I’d been teaching some at George Wythe College, once in Cedar City Utah, on the high, sage-brushed plains, north of the Grand Canyon, and between Zion and Bryce, but now fled to Salt Lake City.

  2. While this represents a trend, it’s not universal. At Dartmouth College, Economics is one of the most popular majors.

    The department decided to manage over-subscription to classes by making the coursework harder and the current average grade is a B+ which is lower than the school average, and considerably lower than softer majors like women’s studies and sociology which more routinely give A’s.

    The result was even higher course subscriptions, which says something about how even economists can misunderstand incentives.

    What I take away from that is that some students like and care about learning, and for some succeeding in a challenging area is appreciated.

  3. In 30 years of teaching, I have never lowered my expectations in order to get good student reviews. I’m not about to start now.

  4. 4.7/5.0 is a very high bar, it must be terrifying for a non-tenured faculty member. I would be looking for work elsewhere, and also, the pressure to suck up to and go easy on the students would be unbearable.

    I doubt that the bar is this high in the sciences, there would be nobody to teach the courses!

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