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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

WSJ: When Students Rate Professors, Standards Drop

CourseEvalsWall 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.

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A better analogy is to rating cancer specialists by asking their patients three months after their office visit. Who would do better, the doctor who said you had cancer and ordered chemotherapy, or the doctor who said your health was much better than you thought and all you needed was some extra rest?

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Oct 30, 2013 12:08:29 PM

Comparing students evaluating professors to restaurants evaluating inspectors is pretty stupid. Students are the customers of the professors. Restaurants are not the customers of inspectors. Companies or organizations that ignore customer evaluations better hope that there aren't better options for those customers -- which, in the case of many universities, which practice as oligopolies, are only true until their outrageous costs and private competition dissolve their control.

Posted by: Woody | Oct 31, 2013 8:06:26 AM

No, sorry, Woody...students are not the customers of the university; the taxpayers that support the university and allow for financial aid are the true customers of the university.

Posted by: kayla | Nov 5, 2013 8:06:35 PM

Kayla, sadly… you are standing deep in left field. I am a student and I assure you that I am in fact the customer. Even if I receive some financial aid, which I don't -- not all students do, I am still the customer. I invest time, money, labor, and my future to a university and its staff. I pay for services… educational services. It is wholly immaterial whether it is a plumber or a PhD. When I shell out for services I expect value for my money. I urge you to visit to review at least one analysis of student financial aid and deduct all repayable assistance (loans) and work study before stating further that a university is a recipient of public funds therefore making all students non-customers and only institutional financial wards. You may have an argument for those with full ride grants and scholarships.
Too many instructors are ineffective teachers. They do not communicate well, encourage debate or creative thinking, use poorly related texts, go too fast, too slow, too much homework, frankly – the list is endless. Regardless of a student’s experience and peer group, only a student can say what and why he accomplished or did not.
Student evaluations are an essential gauge of an instructor’s ability to educate. I do disagree with teacher’s opportunities being tied to evaluations but they should be tapped as a corrective guide for those receiving exorbitant amounts of undesirable criticism.

Posted by: Chet | Nov 5, 2013 9:54:36 PM

Like water and electricity, and like most humans, professors will always take the path of least resistance to solve a problem. If that problem is poor student ratings, then the easiest route to a solution is to make the course easier and relax academic rigor. Not saying all students want this, however the professor will have to play to the majority, which on balance, want an easier course. So, more precisely, the standard professor evaluation model currently in use in most institutions most negatively affects the top students. One possible solution would be to weight the students feedback based on their GPA. The evaluation and feedback from students with higher GPAs should hold more weight while the lower tier student’s opinions should be mostly disregarded.

Posted by: Hans | Nov 22, 2013 3:32:31 PM