Evaluating the evaluators

Consider these lines from student critiques: "It is unfair to drop someones (sic) grade because he/she missed too many days." "We were bombarded with information about authors that was boring with fact." "He had a tendency to be critical on objective manners (sic) such as word choice." "It is really hard to come to class when every day the material is being shoved down your throat." "The instructor needs to lower her standards." "I also think 2 novels to read outside of class is a bit too much. It's hard enough to get through 1." "She should have more concern for her students, their stress levels, and their GPAs!"

Several times a year, college professors see similar pleas for easier workloads and lower standards on their course/instructor evaluations. Some professors manage to ignore them. They know that many students - to make up for an inadequate high school education - must be encouraged to work hard in college. And they know that most students perform to standard - the more demanded, the more learned.

But a couple of factors are making it harder for professors to "do the right thing." First, the number of students who resent tough course loads and high grading standards seems to be growing as high schools continue to pump them out underprepared and disengaged. And professors are encountering more and more of these students who resent, and in some cases actively resist, efforts to educate them. Some instructors, after enduring days, months, and years of scowls and pleas, eventually capitulate and make students happy "consumers" by dumbing down their courses.

On top of this, there are institutional incentives for professors to do the "wrong" thing. In almost every college or university in the country, students are given the chance to "grade" professors on such points as their concern for students, their stimulation of interest, and their grading. In most cases, this is no idle exercise. The evaluation scores are used by administrators to help determine which faculty members should be retained, given tenure, promoted, or rewarded with a salary increase. Over the length of a career, lower merit-pay increases can have a devastating effect on one's base salary, which is often used to compute retirement pay.

It's not hard to see the moral bind for faculty. Professors can win the praise of students and keep their jobs in part by getting high scores from students. This increasingly means pleasing those students who don't like to read, write, think, or work hard. Even when in the minority, these disengaged students are feared, because they can drastically lower a professor's numbers. Conversely, professors have little to fear from engaged students, who tend to grade them generously because they're happy to have more study time for really challenging courses.

Given that evaluation forms are here to stay, I would like to suggest two things. First, much less emphasis should be placed on the data generated by student evaluation forms when teaching performance is being gauged. Second, evaluation forms should ask students to rate whether courses are tough, the grading standards high, and the workload demanding. A form that asks about these things may encourage professors to do the right thing, and reward them for it.

* Paul Trout is an English professor at Montana State University in Bozeman.

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