US college students have a big say in how lecturers are graded, and it
affects standards, argues Paul Trout
At the end of the spring semester, college students throughout the United
States will rate their instructors on how well they knew the course
material, showed "concern" for students, graded "fairly," etc.
Administrators will then crunch the numbers and use them - with other
material - to decide whether instructors deserve pay increases, retention,
tenure and promotion.
Procedures differ from campus to campus, but evaluation scores are almost
always the primary way to assess teaching. The use of numerical forms to
reward and punish instructors is supposed to improve teaching, but in
reality it is doing more to dumb it down than any other policy or practice
Here's how it works. Every year I compete with my colleagues for a share of
merit-pay money. The amount I get depends on how a committee of colleagues
evaluates the quality of my work in three areas: service, scholarship and
teaching. If I "meet expectations," no bonus money, but if I "exceed
expectations" in a category, I get a share. I do best, of course, if I
"exceed" in all three.
In my department, to "exceed" in teaching, I have to receive scores of at
least 3.6 on a scale of 4. To get scores this high, I have to make a lot of
students happy. There's the rub.
What makes many students happy nowadays? "Understanding" and "friendly"
instructors, "comfortable" courses and "fair" grades. To translate: teachers
who are not demanding, workloads that are not taxing and grading standards
that are not high.
Studies have found that students give lower ratings to instructors who have
high standards and requirements - two attributes closely associated with
student learning. One study found that for every 10% increase in the amount
of material students learned, the professor's rating decreased by a
half-point. The researcher advised professors seeking a perfect rating "to
teach nothing and give at least 66% of the class As."
Many college students are unprepared for the rigors of higher education.
Growing numbers cannot read, write or compute proficiently and have, at
best, only a weak grasp of basic historical and cultural information.
Students with these handicaps rarely appreciate being made to read, write
and reason cogently.
Even worse, many students now coming to college have almost no desire to
learn or understand things outside their narrow vocational interest.
According to a UCLA survey, 40% of each freshman class is "disengaged" from
educational values and pursuits. Students are inattentive,
easily bored and unwilling to work hard, especially on difficult or
abstract material outside their interests.
Because of numerical evaluation forms, these students have a powerful say in
how hard they are worked and graded. To get high scores, most instructors
have to please them, or at least not upset them. Even a few students, angry
about a demanding workload (or a C grade) can have a devastating effect on
evaluation scores simply by giving an instructor "zeros".
Untenured and part-time instructors are especially vulnerable, because low
evaluation scores can threaten their jobs. A few years ago
an untenured faculty member told me that after receiving low scores, he
consciously made his course easier. "I watered it down," he said. "If I
weren't afraid of these teaching evaluations, I would have done it
Tenured professors - as reward-driven as anyone else outside a Trappist
monastery - can also cave in to the perverse incentives of the reward
system. If even Mark Edmundson, a six-figure full professor at the
University of Virginia, complied with student demands for "comfortable, less
challenging" classes - as he admitted doing - what sort of heroic resistance
can be expected from
those trying to reach a salary of $50,000 before retirement?
No one can say precisely how many instructors have dumbed down their
courses. But an extrapolation from one study would suggest that a third of
the 900,000 instructors in higher education may have eased their
requirements and standards.
If this system is to be dismantled, it will be up to US taxpayers, parents,
legislators, public-interest law firms and alumni to bring about changes.
Paul Trout is a professor of English at Montana State University
Reprinted in The Guardian Weekly 23-3-2000, page 24
Contact F. David Peat