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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grade Inflation 101: How to Inflate Grades

The school district’s curriculum committee requires students to learn the presidents of the U.S.A. as part of the high school American History curriculum. One history teacher (#1) gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. John Adams
B. John Hancock
C. James Madison
D. Thomas Jefferson

Another history teacher (#2) in the same school district gave a test that included the following question and 99 additional questions of a similar difficulty level:

The third president of the U.S.A. was
A. George Washington
B. Thomas Jefferson
C. Bill Clinton
D. George W. Bush

Which teacher is likely to get a higher average percentage correct among his/her students?

Using the conventional grading method (90-100%=A; 80-89%=B; 70-79%=C; 60-69%=D; 0-59%=F), the #1 teacher’s students are apt to get a normal distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 70s. The #2 teacher’s students are likely to get a skewed distribution of scores and grades, with the class average in the 90s.

Right away, you can see that one teacher will give many more “A”s than the other if we assume that both groups of students are of similar ability levels.

Suppose #2 teacher made a practice of giving an extra credit question at the end of each test that is something like this:

For 10 extra credit points, who is your favorite president
in American History? Please explain why you chose this president.

Of course, almost any answer could be given the full 10 points since the question asks only for the student's personal opinions. In this way, students in #2 teacher’s class could conceivably get 110 points on the test, and when all tests for the year are averaged together, it would not be surprising for some students to have an average that is higher than 100%.

If all students and their parents were surveyed to find out their satisfaction with #1 teacher and #2 teacher, it is quite probable that the students who received “A”s, and their parents, would give the most glowing feedback. It is probable that the teacher who gave more “A”s and fewer “C”s, “D”s, and “F”s would get higher consumer satisfaction ratings. It is also probable that, in the future, based on both teachers' reputations, more students and their parents would ask for placement in #2 teacher’s American History class. If you were to ask the two teachers’ principals, which one is the better teacher, it is very possible that they would choose #2 teacher.

Of course, the similar inflation of grades can be done when grades are given for term papers, essay tests, science projects, and in-class oral presentations. So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of inflating students’ grades?

Advantages of Inflated Grades

1. More students and their parents are happy with the grades.

2. The teacher’s bosses get fewer complaints about the
grade-inflating teacher.

3. In subsequent years, more children want to be in the teacher’s

4. Inflated grades result in inflated student self-esteem.

Disadvantages of Inflated Grades

1. Students have inflated perceptions of their own skills
and knowledge.

2. Accustomed to inflated grades, students are easily upset
by future teachers who do not inflate grades.

3. Students are unprepared for more difficult colleges
that do less inflating of grades.

4. Tests and assignments tend to be so unchallenging that
students no longer need to read, study, or even attend
class. Reading skills, critical thinking skills, and
study habits are not developed or atrophy from disuse.

5. Engineering, pharmacy, and medical schools must either
fail the many students who are unprepared for their
more demanding expectations or engage in grade inflation
to keep their students happy.

6. Private for-profit universities attract increasing
numbers of students, give inflated grades to keep
their students/customers happy.

7. More inadequate people slip into engineering, computer science,
medicine, pharmacy, nursing, paramedics, etc.,
resulting in more medical errors, computer system failures,
power grid crashes, and NASA space mission disasters.

8. Competent teachers and professors quickly become disillusioned
and leave the field of education while
incompetent teachers get good ratings
and remain in the field.

9. Children in schools in the USA perform poorly on PISA
(Program for International Student Assessment), ranking 24th
in math, 21st in science, and 15th in reading among school
children in all the world’s developed countries.

As an adjunct professor who has taught graduate-level courses in psychology over the last 40 years, I have given tests with both kinds of questions demonstrated above. The vast majority of my students liked the easy questions and gave me feedback that they considered these tests to be very fair. When I gave tests with the more difficult kind of questions, especially those requiring them to use reasoning to figure out the answers, I usually got complaints, describing these tests as “too hard,” “ambiguous,” and “tricky”. Several have complained that they were in danger of getting a “B” in the course, and it would ruin their perfect straight “A” record. They often asked for special deals in which they could either do-over an assignment or do an extra assignment (that no other students would know about or have access to) to raise their grade. It was obvious to me that many students were accustomed to getting these sorts of special deals in previous courses they had taken, even after their final course grades had been posted. How did I cope with the moral and ethical dilemma? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Grade Inflation in Societal Context

What do all of the following have in common?

1. Vanity sizing of women’s clothing
2. Photoshop
3. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court
4. McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as V-P running mate
5. Basketball coach fired after team wins by score of 100 to 0
6. Breast augmentation

If you don’t see the common thread, some facts about each of these phenomena might help.

VANITY SIZING- In recent years, many manufacturers of women’s clothing have altered the size labels in clothing as the average weight and size of women have increased. For example, if a woman who has gained weight used to wear a size 8 dress, she could now buy a dress with a size 8 label, even though she would actually need a size 10 by the old standards. Women can now operate with the misperception that they are still the same size as they were when they weighed less. The dress manufacturers benefit because women who have gained weight are more likely to buy dresses if the purchases are of the same size as when they were thinner. In this way, women can maintain their self-esteem through delusion.

PHOTOSHOP- This computer program is a digital photograph editor that can be used to improve the looks of a photo or change a photograph for the purposes of propaganda. For example, one could put a person’s face on another’s body, making it appear that a hostage is still alive when he really is not. One could also take a photo of group of 50 soldiers and make it appear like an army of thousands. Today, when we see a photo on the internet or on TV, it is wise to question its authenticity.

HARRIET MIERS- When a president nominates a person for a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, the country is accustomed to candidates who belong among the top nine jurists in the country. We expect each nominee to have graduated at, or near, the top of his/her class from one of the very best law schools, and to have established a superior career as a lawyer, judge, and/or legal scholar. Most of us are not knowledgeable enough to be able to evaluate these candidates by ourselves, so we place some trust in the president and the congress to do it for us. I am not qualified to evaluate Harriet Miers’ (nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005) career accomplishments, but I looked up the law school origins of recent & current supreme court justices and found the following:


Alito----- Yale (1)
Sotomayor----- Yale (1)
Thomas----- Yale (1)
Breyer----- Harvard (2)
Roberts----- Harvard (2)
Scalia----- Harvard (2)
Souter----- Harvard (2)
O’Connor----- Stanford (3)
Rehnquist----- Stanford (3)
Ginsberg----- Columbia (4)
Stevens----- Northwestern (10)
Miers----- Southern Methodist (49)

I certainly can’t argue that a 1970 graduate from Southern Methodist’s Law School would be less adequate as a Supreme Court Justice than graduates from the top 10 law schools (2009 U.S. News and World Report rankings). I do know, however, that the admissions requirements for the highest-rated law schools are much more competitive in terms of intellect, prior accomplishments, college grades, and LSAT scores. From the above chart it is obvious that President Bush side-stepped one of the common criteria for nominees. I’m quite sure that relatively few Americans were aware of this, while congressmen of both major parties immediately recognized this as a critical issue and she was quickly withdrawn from consideration. The perception that Bush tried to convey is that Harriet Miers was every bit as qualified as the sitting justices for a seat on the Supreme Court.

SARAH PALIN- When presidential candidate Sen. John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, many McCain loyalists trusted that he thoroughly vetted her, that she was fully qualified to become president in case McCain, who would have been the oldest person to ever become U.S. president, might not survive his first term. Sarah Palin was in her first term as governor of Alaska, having served for 20 months at the time of her nomination. Prior to that, her elected experience included president of the Wasilla PTA, Wasilla City Council member, 2 terms as Wasilla (population: 7,000) Mayor (1996 to 2002), and Alaska (population: 686,000) Governor from 12/06 to 8/08 when McCain named her as his running mate. When she was elected governor, a total of 238,307 votes were cast, and she received only 48% of them. Her college education included attendance at Hawaii Pacific University (1982), North Idaho College (1983), University of Idaho (1984 & 1985), and Matanuska-Susitna College (1985), before she finally obtained her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from the University of Idaho in 1986.

The image that the McCain campaign tried to convey was that Sarah Palin was a fully-qualified executive by virtue of her experiences as mayor and governor, and that she was also a down-to-earth person, a “soccer mom”, who understood from first-hand experience, the real-life problems that most people have in their lives. Of course, they did not focus on her very limited executive experience in terms of both number of years and size of the populations she governed. Nor did they focus on her nomadic college experience at undistinguished colleges and universities. Many voters had little awareness of how limited Sarah Palin was as a vice-presidential candidate, partly because they trusted that Sen. McCain would not nominate a person who was unqualified.

BASKETBALL COACH- Actually, this story is not unique. Similar incidents have been recently reported in the media, but this one is a good example. On 1/13/09, Covenant School defeated Dallas Academy in girls’ basketball by a score of 100-0. Dallas Academy had not won a single game in the previous 4 years. The coach of Covenant School said that he would not apologize for his team’s overwhelming victory, and he was soon fired. The Covenant School administration stated that “It is shameful and an embarrassment that this happened” and that “This clearly does not reflect a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition.” They went on to ask the league director to record the game as a forfeit. For an account of this story, see:

Of course, the Covenant School coach had prepared his players to play well and competitively, and had recruited strong players to this private school. When he inserted his subs, they continued to run-up the score because every competitive player wants to do her best and the opponent was weak. The coach did not want to tell any of his players to play poorly or to stop trying as this would be contrary to what coaches generally try to instill in their players.

What about the coach and the school administration of the losing team? Why were they so uncompetitive that they did not win a single game in 4 years? Did the administration fail to emphasize girls’ basketball sufficiently to avoid such lopsided losses? Should the administration have entered the team in a less competitive league? Did the coach prepare the girls effectively? Why weren’t the administrators and the coach at Dallas Academy called to task for leading their lambs to slaughter? Surely they knew that the Covenant School team was very good. In fact, after the drubbing and the associated news stories, the Dallas Academy administration withdrew its team from the league.

More critically, what has happened in this country that a coach who succeeded in developing an excellent team is castigated for poor sportsmanship and an unchristian attitude while a coach whose team was unprepared to compete was not even criticized? Further, what has happened to our concept of fairness which used to mean that everybody plays by the same rules? Today, fairness involves a sliding scale of rules depending on the needs of each participant. Therefore, if a sports opponent is weak, the stronger one is supposed to ease-up so as not to inflict shame or embarrassment, and to demonstrate good sportsmanship and compassion. It is in the same zeitgeist that our grading of students has softened so that the weaker ones can still get an “A”, and we often give a “C” for poor performance because an “F” would seem like cruel and unusual punishment.

BREAST AUGMENTATION- Today, most women who can afford the surgery can obtain a shape that rarely occurs in nature. Both genders pay attention to women’s artificially enhanced appearance, and are impressed by cosmetically enhanced bodies just as though they were obtained the old-fashioned way: genetics, proper diet, and exercise. Now, large numbers of women seek to enhance their figures through breast augmentation and other cosmetic surgeries. Even teenage girls are getting parental permission for these procedures. We have been experiencing a shift in what our society considers attractive and the lengths to which people will go to achieve some idealized image of beauty. In effect we have seen perceptual inflation in physical appearance standards: what used to be considered beautiful has become ordinary, and the new concept of beauty is widely attained through artificial means: cosmetic surgery.

So What Do These Six Things Have in Common?

They are all devices that have been used to alter people’s perceptions of reality. The vanity sizing of women’s clothing and cosmetic surgeries such as breast augmentation, serve to change both the way women view themselves and the way others view women. The Photoshop program is used to have viewers of pictures see something other than true and accurate images. The nominations of Miers and Palin by powerful figures in our society tells the public that these two nominees are good, even though the facts indicate that they were actually precedent-lowering standards. Even though neither nominee succeeded, they might contribute to a disinhibitory effect in which we become accustomed to the serious consideration of less adequate nominees in the future. Finally, in the 100-0 basketball scenario, we see the very successful winning coach get fired and the very unsuccessful losing coach get pity. The perception of winning and losing has been changed in our society by what appear to me to be religious values taken literally and to the extreme. In the past, it would have been more likely that the losing coach would have been fired while the winning coach would have been counseled by his boss on compassion and sportsmanship.

Grade Inflation As Altered Perception

Grade inflation is another example of this kind of perceptual shift. The synergy within our society works two ways. First, in a society in which the manipulation of people’s perceptions is commonplace, it becomes easy to embrace one more misperception: grading that is unrelated to actual performance. And second, with lowering standards permeating all levels of education, we will have fewer citizens who have the critical thinking skills and knowledge of history, government, geography, math, and science to be able to recognize substandard nominees for high office, the possibility that news photographs might have been manipulated, or that new standards of beauty and fairness might be problematic.

In my next post, I will demonstrate how easy it is to inflate students’ grades.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's Wrong With On-Line Universities

On-line universities (OLUs) look much different than traditional bricks-and-mortar universities (TBAMUs). First, they lack physical campuses including classrooms, residence halls, libraries, fraternities and sororities, and athletic teams, although some have single buildings or suites in office buildings, scattered across the country like banks or fast food franchises. Second, they are for-profit businesses whose primary goal is to make a profit for owners or stock holders. Third, they make heavy use of part-time or adjunct faculty who typically hold other full-time jobs. These instructors tend to be more practical and less idealistic but, unlike the full-time faculty members at TBAMUs, do not usually devote their professional lives to studying, researching, and teaching their chosen field. Finally, being profit-driven, they market themselves more aggressively, accept virtually all applicants who can pay the tuition, aggressively help applicants obtain tuition loans, sell college credits for life experiences, permit students to re-take failed exams, and help students obtain 4-year degrees in as little as 1½ or 2 years.

At for-profit OLUs, grades are grossly inflated, giving even the weakest students the feeling that they have finally arrived at a place that understands them and recognizes their “true abilities”. Student weaknesses in math, reading, and spelling, as well as a general lack of knowledge, are downplayed as being unimportant. Much like rats in a Skinner Box, they continue to pay tuition to gain high grades and a degree as repeated affirmation that they are the equal of any successful student at TBAMUs. When asked, the on-line students adamantly defend their on-line education, even though they usually do not have the experience to actually compare it to a TBAMU experience.

It is instructive to consider the very clever Kaplan University TV commercial in which an actor plays the role of a distinguished professor at a TBAMU. In the ad, the actor/professor apologizes to all of the students in his audience for his university’s old-fashioned educational practices, and then promises to take a more modern, more relevant, ostensibly better approach from now on. To all those viewers who have not done well in school, who do not have the attention span to stay focused on lectures or read textbooks, or whose lifestyle makes it difficult to sustain their studies at a TBAMU, this ad offers them hope that they can succeed in school, get a college degree, gain access to good occupations, and have successful careers. At all levels of education, testing and grading practices are subjective, variable, and ambiguous enough that it is easy to toy with people’s perceptions. If the endeavor were the 100 meter dash, the results would be much clearer because a good stopwatch doesn’t lie. After a few slow races, an individual would know that the training regimen, which promised world-class times and Olympic medals, was making false claims. In the world of higher education, I routinely meet graduates of OLUs who had 3.8 and 4.0 cumulative GPAs and are completely unaware that their scholastic skills are below the level of the average high school graduate.

Priceless TBAMU Life Lessons: Hard to Replicate at OLUs

I have taken on-line continuing education courses that seemed entirely appropriate in the format they were offered. I must admit, that I was typically able to review the multiple choice exam first, skim the reading materials, and then answer all of the unchallenging questions with ease. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a place for some on-line coursework in both undergraduate and graduate education. But, to get any degree with all, or virtually all, on-line courses would detract from one’s experience and possibly result in uneducated graduates. In thinking about the various courses I have taken in my nine years as a student at three universities, I came up with a long list of courses and related experiences that could not be matched by on-line study. Here is a partial list of those experiences:

University of Pittsburgh, freshman year, Professor Buckwalter’s intro to geology course. A field trip by bus, an hour or so outside the city. We chipped sedimentary rock on the bank of a river, collecting fossils from varying layers of rock. I understood right then and there that Evolution was no longer just a “theory”. It was a fact. This educational experience shaped my beliefs and made it hard for me to allow that “Intelligent Design” should be included in grade school science textbooks.

Pitt, sophomore year, Professor Stern’s interdisciplinary humanities course. Showed slide of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and practically sang and beamed with enthusiasm as he pointed out the symbolism and the magnificent shade of blue. I did not share his enthusiasm at that time, but something significant was imprinted in me. 40 years later, as I strolled with my wife through the Uffizi, I was drawn to Boticelli’s masterpiece and noticed the rainbow of national origins crowding in to take a look. It was then that I realized that great works of art are threads that connect people of all nationalities and generations as they share aesthetic experiences.

Pitt, junior year, Professor Levitt’s physiological psychology course. Sitting next to another psych major, Alan, who always got better grades than me in the many psych courses we took together. After class, I asked how he managed to earn such good grades and he described his impressive study methods. I realized that I would have to step-up my effort to compete for admission to a good Ph.D. program. He invited me to join a study group of other similarly motivated psych majors, and this led to sharper focus, higher grades, and eventually, my Ph.D. My fellow students in almost every course I have ever taken have been a source of valuable information, insights, competition and friendship. This can't occur at an OLU because you don't have this kind of interaction with classmates when everything is on-line.

Pitt, junior year. The study group members were talking about finding a psych professor who would allow us to assist with his/her research. This extra work would demonstrate strong interest, initiative and commitment, help me learn more about psychological research, and establish a relationship with a professor who could write a good letter of recommendation for grad school. After knocking on almost every psych professor’s office door and being told that they needed no more research assistants, I approached Dr. Voss whom I had heard was very tough and intimidating. I did not find him to be anything but gracious and helpful, and he gave me some significant work to do under his supervision and that of another psychologist, Dr. Janus. I put subjects through an experimental verbal memory procedure, tabulated and statistically analyzed the data, and wrote a draft of the article which was eventually published. What great preparation for my master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation, and research publications in my future.

Teachers College, Columbia University, first year of master’s program in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling, Professor I. I. Goldberg’s psychological aspects of disability course. Dr. Goldberg was a brilliant, warm-hearted hulk of a man who spoke with an eastern European accent and who had only one arm. Every class involved exposure to another type of disability. Sometimes a person with a severe orthopedic disability, or a neurological disability, or a hearing impairment was invited to class to demonstrate the ingenious methods and persistent effort he/she used to accomplish everyday tasks such as eating, grooming, or using the telephone. In other classes we would simulate our own disability by walking through the Horace Mann Building with blindfolds and white canes or maneuvering in a wheelchair. The experiences took me far beyond the lectures, textbooks, and research papers that were also required.

Ohio State University, second year of Ph.D. program in Counseling Psychology, Professor George Taylor’s course on group therapy. Class size was limited to 12 students. There were no lectures. Each class was like a group therapy session with Dr. Taylor as the facilitator. He set the stage for productive group process, sometimes asking us to participate in structured activities. As we experienced all of the phenomena that occur in therapy groups, Dr. Taylor provided both commentary on the process and an excellent model of how to be a group therapist. During the 30 years following my graduation from Ohio State, I taught about 30 sections of a similar graduate-level course at two universities, delighting in seeing my students learn about themselves and the beautiful way in which groups of people can evolve into helping, compassionate, and growth-producing entities. I was shocked to hear that some psychology graduate programs now offer this course on-line. What a sad turn of events for the students, their future patients, and my beloved profession!

Ohio State, second year. As a teaching associate, I taught three sections of Psychology of Personal Effectiveness, which was actually a study skills course. Along with four fellow grad students, I taught this course under the supervision of Dr. Francis P. Robinson, the developer of the SQ3R study method and author of our textbook, Effective Study. The five of us met once per week in Dr. Robinson’s seminar, learned some of the finer points of how to teach, the details of the SQ3R method, and the research behind it. I was very nervous for the first couple of classes, but I quickly became more confident and really enjoyed teaching. For most of the years since, I have been a professor at three different universities. It never occurred to me that I would want to be a university professor when I chose to attend graduate school to become a psychologist. I doubt I would have made this choice if I didn’t have this outstanding experience at a TBAMU.

The above seven experiences were just a small portion of the many that rounded out my education. None of them could have occurred without having great professors who devote their lives to academia. Many of these experiences depended on having direct contact, competition, and cooperation with fellow students who knew more than me. None of them would be possible had I logged-on to courses in an exclusively OLU. I believe every TBAMU student has similar priceless experiences, some subtle and some profound. I believe students have far fewer of these critical experiences at for-profit OLUs and this would seriously diminish the world in which our graduates live, work, create, and educate future generations.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Students Rating Professors: A Chilling Effect

During the Viet Nam Era, when university students protested for more relevant courses, universities reacted quickly to calm the demonstrations that sometimes became violent. In 1968, while I was a grad student at Columbia, the university’s reaction was an almost immediate shift from traditional letter grades to PASS/FAIL grading, which meant that anyone who did “C” or "D" work could get the same “PASS” as the person who merited an “A”. Talk about grade inflation! In addition, students were given the option of anonymously rating their courses and professors to let the administration know their opinions of the quality of instruction, the relevance of the course content, the suitability of the classroom, etc. The PASS/FAIL option soon faded, but the student rating of courses and professors has grown into a universal practice which, in fact, is now required by college and university accrediting agencies.

On the surface, the rating of courses and professors appears to be a good thing. What could be wrong with administrators getting a glimpse of what really goes on in each professor’s classroom? After all, raises, promotions, and tenure were traditionally based on three elements: (1) teaching, (2) research and publication, and (3) service to both the university and the larger community. The teaching part of the triad had been the hardest part to evaluate because senior faculty rarely sat in on junior faculty members’ classes to evaluate them. Today, at most universities, the only documented information regarding the quality of professors’ teaching comes from student ratings.

As the years have passed, the teaching part of the triad has become the only significant activity of most faculty members at most universities. Relatively few of the colleges and universities in the USA are considered to be “research institutions”. The vast majority of smaller public, private, and private for-profit universities are mainly teaching facilities that offer courses, credits, and degrees, but do not contribute original research and “new knowledge” to the world. Increasingly, these universities hire local experienced professionals such as school teachers, police officers, lawyers, and accountants to teach courses in their area of specialty on a part-time or adjunct basis. Because most of their income usually comes from their full-time day jobs, they often do not spend much time keeping up on the latest research and writing in their respective fields. What they have to offer the students is their ability to summarize the content of basic textbooks and anecdotes regarding their experience in the field. Most undergraduate students, and many graduate students, are completely unaware that the professors at the research-oriented universities have published extensively in professional journals, written textbooks, and devised the leading theories and concepts in their fields.

The problem with students as the only evaluators of their courses and professors is that they are usually unaware of all of the functions of professors and universities. They might not realize that the professor who wrote the textbook and has a theory named after him/her might be dividing time between research, writing, consulting, and teaching. Such a professor, who has worked very hard to become eminent in his/her field, might expect commensurate initiative, dedication, and hard work from his/her students. When students rate these professors, they might give them lower ratings than they give to the part-time, less knowledgeable instructors who tend to offer interesting stories, easier course requirements, and easier grading. It takes quite a bit of maturity and wisdom for a student to appreciate the value of the higher powered professor as a mentor, a fountain of knowledge, and one of the key contributors to the excellent reputation of the very university that will enhance both his/her chances of admission to a good graduate school and the impressiveness of the student’s resume.

The typical course evaluation form is much like a customer comment card at a hotel or restaurant. The student responds to 10 to 15 rating scales by marking a number from 1 (Unacceptable) to 5 (Excellent) to rate such areas as the instructor’s knowledge of the subject matter, enthusiasm, testing and grading practices, and attitude toward students. Next to each rating there is usually enough room to write a one- or two-sentence comment. Traditionally, course evaluations have been done with paper and pen in the classroom, immediately after the final exam. Lately, many course evaluations are done on-line, after the final exam but before final course grades are posted.

In my experience as an adjunct professor teaching masters-level psychology courses at the same university for the last 25 years, most students do not want to take much time to rate the course, so they simply circle all “5”s and leave it at that. Those students who had an extremely positive or inspired experience in the course will sometimes write a few lines to say so. Those who are unhappy with the amount of work required of them, the expectation of a lower-than-hoped-for grade, or who have been advised to modify their tardiness, absenteeism, or disruptive behavior, tend to give lower ratings and to write derogatory comments. Within the same class, students’ comments have ranged from “Way too much material and unfair exams.” to “Best course yet- I really learned a lot.” Angry students have sometimes gone overboard. A former student anonymously wrote: “This is the worst course I have ever taken. If you don’t fire the professor, I’ll tell my friends not to come to the university.” All evaluations, of course, go directly to department administrators who decide whether to invite me to teach future courses.

For an excellent review of literature on this topic, see “Student Evaluations: A Critical Review” by Michael Huemer at He found that the research has supported my assertion that “students tend to give higher ratings when they expect to receive higher grades.” Among many cogent observations, Huemer also noted that the student evaluation of faculty leads to the “dumbing down” of courses. It is very clear that professors could get more good ratings and fewer bad ratings from students if we were to require little work from them, assign easier-to-read textbooks or no books at all, give easier exams, provide do-over exams and assignments, and give more high grades. Certainly, a few strong, well-motivated students actually give lower ratings for watered-down courses, but this represents a small percentage of the total. The reality is that there is an ever-growing proportion of adjunct faculty in an ever-increasing number of for-profit and non-research not-for-profit universities. These part-time professors often work with the weakest of the nation’s students. If they were to give un-inflated grades, they would suffer through classes with many unhappy students and be quickly replaced by professors who would keep the customers happy, obtain good student course evaluations, and satisfy the marketing and enrollment needs of their universities.