Student Evaluations of Professors– A popularity contest?
Think back to your high school or college days. Was there a teacher who stood out from the rest; perhaps even influenced you to enter the career you did? Perhaps an English teacher who taught the intricacies of good writing and demanded the production of an essay every week, a math teacher who encouraged his students to tackle problems beyond the scope of the textbook, and a biology professor whose lectures were so fascinating that you quite forgot to take notes.
So, what makes a good teacher? Being easy? Being nice? Giving huge curves and good grades? Or teaching clearly, holding students to a standard, going beyond the curriculum and teaching students to think? How can we accurately measure the quality of a teacher?
Currently, there are two methods of assessing teacher quality: in primary and secondary school teachers are evaluated on the basis of student performance on standardized tests. This is not ideal since teachers may “teach to the test” so that their students learn to take standardized tests well (a combination of test taking skills and memorization of facts), but do not learn to assess or apply what they have learned.
In college and post-graduate education the situation is even worse. Here faculty are often judged solely on the basis of student evaluations; scores are used in decisions about tenure and/or promotion. But, according to a study conducted by Dr. Scott Carrell of UCDavis and NBER and Dr. James West of the USAF Academy, high student evaluation ratings are inversely proportional to the quality of the teaching.
This makes sense. The authors point out that students give high marks to educators who “inflate grades or reduce academic content.” They also note that under-qualified or inexperienced teachers tend to challenge their students less, thus they achieve higher student evaluation scores. Understandably, the students of these professors, while temporarily happy, do not do well in follow-on courses.
In comparison, professors who “broaden the curriculum,” encourage good study habits, and “produce students with a deeper understanding of the material,” find that their student evaluation scores are low. The result of their teaching is that their students are more likely to succeed in later and related curriculum. But, the professors are less likely to get promotions or tenure.
Carrell and West suggest that, therefore, use of student evaluations to assess teacher quality may not produce what we want: good teachers. In fact, it seems that it produces the opposite. Change is needed. We need to promote educators who encourage their students to develop good study habits, those who promote deep learning instead of rote memorization, not those who win the annual popularity contest.