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 http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/sef.htm 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.