With a freshly minted PhD in her pocket, Suzanne Marilley leapt into her first college teaching job expecting to help students learn more than they thought possible.
But it was she who learned the big lesson.
Students wrote in their post-course evaluations that she graded too hard and demand-ed too much. She persisted. So did the bad reviews. Eventually, she lost her job.
To be sure, other factors were cited as well. It was student evaluations, however, that she believes did her in. Today, Professor Marilley teaches political science at another college where she is trying hard to be funnier, less demanding, more engaging.
To boosters of student evaluations, such experiences are proof positive that the process can nudge professors toward better teaching. It can help weed out poor educators, they argue. They question whether evaluations alone can ruin a professor, given the frequent emphasis on research and publishing.
But to Marilley and others, the practice fosters what they call "pander pollution." Student evaluations, many professors charge, can weigh heavily in career advancement and encourage professors to dumb down classes. Teachers also may feel pressed to give higher grades to keep student "customers" - and their parents - happy.
"Grading leniently is a strong causal factor in elevating student ratings" of teachers, says Anthony Greenwald, professor of psychology at the University of Washington at Seattle, co-author of a recent study published in American Psychologist magazine. The findings showed a "positive relationship" between grades and ratings. Another recent study showed similar results.
Professor Greenwald became intrigued a few years ago when his usually high ratings fluctuated. One year his students rated him at the top, the next year his ranking plummeted. It was the same course, same syllabus, same teaching method. "It convinced me there was more to ratings than objective evaluation," he says.
But these studies fly in the face of widely held views to the contrary. Most college administrators pour cold water on the "high grade, high rating" theory. The vast majority of the more than 2,000 studies on the subject say evaluations are a useful, nearly bias-free measure of teacher effectiveness.
"There is no indication that grades [given to students] affect student evaluations," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.
Nathan Hatch, provost of the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., says student evaluations are "one valid tool" among several the university uses to assess professors. A faculty study found no correlation between high grades and the evaluations, he adds.
"Student evaluations are a fairly accurate measure of teaching," he says.
Student evaluations were introduced in the 1960s as a way to give students a voice on campus and help professors improve, or at least focus on more than just "publish or perish." On many campuses, teacher scores are compiled into guides students read before taking a class.
Peter Seldin, a professor of management at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., touts the value of student input. Of 600 American colleges he surveys, 88 percent use them for personnel decisions, though to varying degrees.
"A number of factors contribute to grade inflation, but evaluations are not among them," says Professor Seldin, who also consults for colleges. Better-prepared students and improved teaching produce more learning deserving of higher grades, he says. Yet he admits there is a problem.
While at many research universities, student evaluations may carry less weight with faculty decisions, many colleges lean too heavily on them, he says. Half of the colleges he surveys use student evaluations alone instead of as one part of a broader evaluation that includes peer reviews and a portfolio.
William Pallett - director of the IDEA Center at Kansas State University in Manhattan, which helps colleges analyze student evaluations - also worries about their misuse.
"Student evaluations should not become the dominant influence in personnel decisions, but all too often they do," he says. "When that occurs, bad things do happen."
Still many see student evaluations as a way to ensure that students get their money's worth.
"Education is a business and educators often lose sight of this," writes Patricia Ayres, an adult educator at Miami-Dade Community College, in an online debate. "Students are our customers and the customer must be satisfied. All instructors ... should welcome 'customer' evaluations."
One such customer is Adam Massey, a political science major at Northeastern University in Boston. He expects to graduate in a couple of years with $100,000 in student loans.
Mr. Massey feels not only the need to evaluate his professors, but also a perfect right to slam them if teaching is boring him or a teacher is "too hard."
"I'm not paying $20,000 a year to have the teacher make me fall asleep," he says, peering over his textbook and a pile of notes.
To Massey, the bottom line is getting what he came for: a scintillating education and good grades. To many professors, students like Massey are simply resisting the academic tension needed to learn well. They say they are prodded to grade students more lightly and "entertain" more.
Massey recalls one political-science professor who stood on top of a desk and challenged students to burn the American flag he was holding. Two students tried to as others protested. The fracas was followed by a discussion about freedom of speech.
Says Massey, "I gave him good marks for making the extra effort to make it interesting."
After Years of Evaluations, One Professor Draws the Line
'Talk softly and grade easy." That's the motto Paul Trout, an English professor at Montana State University at Bozeman, learned to live by in the 1980s and '90s when he was bucking for promotion and needed a pay increase.
"I would like to say I have resisted [pressure from student evaluations], but I have not," he says. "I probably have done things I should not have in the classroom to raise my evaluation scores or to protect them."
Since about 1992, though, he says he has started grading harder - much harder - despite a rise in unhappy student comments on his evaluations.
Professor Trout also offers some openly subversive, tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek satirical advice to other professors in his newsletter, The Montana Professor.
He targets the ratings with tips for educators like: "Dress casually," "Tell students you're warm and nurturing," and "Give lots of high grades."
Of his recently tougher stance on grading he says, "I'm facing the end of my career and I want to leave with my head erect."