Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Wall Street Journal op-ed: When Students Rate Teachers, Standards Drop:
Why do colleges tie academic careers to winning the approval of teenagers? Something is seriously amiss.
Suppose that restaurants could evaluate health inspectors, and that an inspector's livelihood depended on what the restaurant thought of the rating it had received. Would the inspector be more or less likely to identify problems at the restaurant? Would incidents of food poisoning go up or down?
No one has been reckless enough to institute such a system in the food-service industry. But a version does exist in American higher education. At the end of every semester, students fill out questionnaires about what they thought of a course. Was the course paced appropriately? Was the professor concerned that the students learn the material? Would you recommend the course to others? What overall rating would you give the professor?
These are reasonable questions, and professors often benefit from what their students say. Professors don't simply inspect. They teach, and it's helpful to know how things might have gone better from the students' point of view. The problem is that, for the vast majority of colleges and universities, student opinion is the only means by which administrators evaluate teaching. How demanding the course was—how hard it pushed students to develop their minds, expand their imaginations, and refine their understanding of complexity and beauty—is largely invisible to the one mechanism that is supposed to measure quality.
It would be one thing if student evaluations did no harm: then they'd be the equivalent of a thermometer on the fritz —a nuisance, but incapable of making things worse. Evaluations do make things worse, though, by encouraging professors to be less rigorous in grading and less demanding in their requirements. That's because for any given course, easing up on demands and raising grades will get you better reviews at the end.