Hypocrisy… Thy Name Is “Higher” Education

The semester is over, or about over, in colleges and universities across the United States, and in the majority of those universities another set of rituals will be acted out.  No… I’m not talking about graduation.  I’m talking about the return of “student evaluations” to professors and instructors. The entire idea of student evaluations is a largely American phenomenon that caught hold sometime in the late 1970s, and it is now a monster that not only threatens the very concept of improving education, but it’s also a poster child for the hypocrisy of most college and university administrations.

Now… before we go farther, let me emphasize that I am not opposing the evaluation of faculty in higher education.  Far from it.  Such evaluation is necessary and a vital part of assuring the quality of faculty and teaching.  What I am opposed to is the use of student evaluations in any part of that process.

Take my wife’s music department.  In addition to their advanced degrees, the vast majority have professional experience outside academia.  My wife has sung professionally on three continents, played lead roles in regional operas, and has directed operas for over twenty years.  The other voice professor left a banking career to become a successful tenor in national and regional opera before returning to school and obtaining a doctorate in voice.  The orchestra conductor is a violinist who has conducted in both the United States and China.  The band director spends his summer working with the Newport Jazz Festival.  The piano professor won the noted Tchaikovsky Award and continues to concertize world-wide.  The percussion professor performs professionally on the side and has several times been part of a group nominated for a Grammy.  This sort of expertise in a music department is not unusual, but typical of many universities, and I could come up with similar kinds of expertise in other university departments as well.

Yet… on student evaluations, the students rate their professors on how effective the professors are at teaching, whether the curricula and content are relevant, whether the amount of work required in the course is excessive, etc.  My question/point is simple:  Exactly how can 18-24 year-old students have any real idea of any of the above?  They have no relevant experience or knowledge, and to obtain it is presumably why they’re in college.

Studies have shown that the closest correlation between high student evaluations is that the professors with the easiest courses and the highest percentage of As get the best evaluations. And, since evaluations have become near-universal, college level grades have experienced massive grade inflation.  In short, student evaluations are merely student Happiness Indices – HI!, for short.

So why have the vast majority of colleges and universities come to rely on HI! in evaluating professors for tenure, promotion, and retention?  It has little to do with teaching effectiveness or the quality of education provided by a given professor and everything to do with popularity.  In the elite schools, student happiness is necessary in order to keep student retention rates up, because that’s one of the key factors used by U.S. News and World Report and other rating groups, and the higher the rating, the more attractive the college or university is to the most talented students, and those students are most likely to be successful and eventually boost alumni contributions and the school’s reputation.  For state universities, it’s a more direct numbers game.  Drop-outs and transfers represent lost funds and inquiries from state legislatures who provide some of the funding.  And departments who are too rigorous in their attempts to maintain or [heaven forbid] upgrade the quality of education often either lose students or fail to grow as fast as other departments, which results in fewer resources for those departments.  Just as Amazon’s reader reviews greatly boosted Amazon’s book sales, HI! boost the economics of colleges and universities.  Professors who try to uphold or raise standards face an uphill and usually unsuccessful battle – as evidenced by the growing percentage of college graduates who lack basic skills in writing and logical understanding.

Yet, all the while, the administrations talk about the necessity of HI! [sanctimoniously disguised as thoughtful student evaluations] in improving education, when it’s really about economics and their bottom line… and by the way, in virtually every university and college across the country, over the past 20 years, the percentage growth in administration size has dwarfed the growth in full-time, tenure-track, and tenured faculty.  But then, why would any administration really want to point out that perceived student happiness trumps academic excellence in every day and in every way or that all those resources are going more and more to administrators, while faculties, especially at state universities, have fewer and fewer professors and more and more adjuncts and  teaching assistants?

8 thoughts on “Hypocrisy… Thy Name Is “Higher” Education”

  1. hockey fan says:

    I’m a student and I agree that this program does not seem to make much sense. There is so much that goes into teaching a class, how motivated the students are for the subject, what’s going on with the students personal life, the overall environment of the school, how tough the material is, what type of people the students like, that is beyond the teachers control it’s not right to judge their teaching performance on a simple survey that is given to the class. The only way I could see this truly working is if the students were made to write up an essay explaining what their semester in the particular class was like, with an emphasis on it being completely truthful, and then have someone read through all the essays and look for similar themes, and then ask the teacher for their side of things. And even then, that would have to be strictly evaluated as the experience of the students, not the quality of the teaching necessarily.
    Of course that would take too much work, time, and money as far as the schools are concerned, so we get this ineffective survey instead.

  2. Amos says:

    Having been an undergraduate student, graduate student, and a professor and having experienced both sides of the evaluative standard, I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Modesitt.

    I have taught introductory courses at a state university, literature courses at an online university, as well as ESL for private schools – all of which I was evaluated by students, and my personal experience with evaluations (in all three cases, instructors were shown course averages, but individual students’ responses were kept anonymous) is that they reflect the findings of national studies: in short, the more As and Bs per course, the better the evaluations, regardless of the course, content, or course expectations (attendance, grading, late work policy, etc.).

    The unfortunate truth of state schools, online universities, and private schools is that a majority of students are not motivated to succeed, being either required by major or parents to take and pass a particular course. I am a frequent reader of the blog, and personal experience leads me to agree with Mr. Modesitt’s comments on the limited work ethic and sense of entitlement of the current generation – and that is not exclusive to American students. As with Mr. Modesitt’s comments, I find this to be more a result of a response to current technologies than any native, cultural alterations.

    Teacher evaluations are simply another outgrowth of the dominance of expectations of immediate returns. If you don’t succeed as quickly as you have come to expect – it must not be your fault. If you receive a poor grade, it must not be because you failed to put in the necessary work, but because the teacher failed you. Or so many students are taught to expect.

    It is a belief system fraught with danger, as we have seen in the short selling and drive for massive quarterly profits in the financial system. I think the problem comes from an unhealthy relationship with our technology, where we have adapted to serve it, rather than forcing it to serve us.

  3. jks9199 says:

    I hold several professional instructor/trainer certifications (though I am not a college professor), and I think that a properly designed student evaluation is a great tool. Or it can be… because the reality is that often, everyone attending professional training simply zips over the list, making circles on the scales (usually either the midpoint or the high end), and scrawls a useless “good class!” in the comments. Especially if the 8 hour training block was magically accomplished in about 7 or so.

    A well designed student evaluation lets the instructor know what they are doing well, what they need to do better on, and how well they were communicating the material. Testing is the place to see how well the students understood the material; the evaluation is a guide as to effectiveness of the presentation method. Our professional evaluations have about 5 questions: how applicable or useful you believe the material was, how well it was presented, how well handouts or other material supported the goal of the training, and one or two other things rated on a scale (1 to 5), then three “open” questions about the overall impression, the strengths of the presenter, and how to improve it.

    As an instructor — I value those last points the most. Especially the ways to improve the presentation. Student input has shaped and led me to completely recreate some of my regular topics, because they weren’t useful.

    The problem I see with the student evaluations you describe is simple. As you said, how can the student assess whether the workload was appropriate or excessive, and so on? Instead, they rate the instructor on what amounts to how much they liked the instructor and how hard they had to work.

    I think you also have a very telling point (that I’ve noticed throughout your works!) in your final paragraph. It’s a point that’s really easily a topic unto itself!

  4. Ken says:

    While Mr. Modesitt does make a good point, evaluations by students do have some worth. For instance, in many science based classes (chemistry, physics, math etc), many of the instructors teaching the classes, are not professors. They’re PhD students and people of similar backgrounds. I distinctly recall several TA’s in a few of those instances (and even instructors, especially in math) that could barely speak english, let along effectively communicate the subject material to you. Or another example I remember from physics is that the TA was very intelligent, yet when trying to solve problems, he used methods that were well above the level of ability for the class, and left many wondering how to solve it since he used such a complicated method of doing so. These are the types of people that departments need to know about through student evaluations so they can/should be removed from the pool of people instructing classes because for whatever reason, they are incapable of being able to effectively teach the subject material. I also think that a student evaluations (especially in classes specific to majors) can be helpful, as when you find a professor that is very good at what they do, how would a department know the strength in certain aspects of those teaching classes if not for the students telling them. Administrators can’t sit in every single class, and know how effective a professor is. So while you do bring up good points, there is still benefits to having student evaluations.

  5. Caitlin says:

    The idea of student evaluations playing a major role in evaluating instructors skills is crazy. I don’t believe a student could neccessarily know what should be taught. That being said the evaluations themselves can be useful at times. Some people are fantastic in their field and yet have zero skills at teaching students their skills. I’ve had some university lectuerers whose english speaking skills were so poor that the majority of students could not understand what was being said. I’ve come across essay questions worded in such a grammatically convulted way that I had to go to another lecturer who point blank admitted that it made no sense at all. Student evaluations can point these problems out to the lectuers who can hopefully address them if they aren’t too stubborn. It is valid to ask students how they should be taught the material they need to be taught but they should not dictate what should be taught. After all in most cases (avoiding morally dubious routes, etc.) the important thing is that the students learn the skills. Unfortunately I’ve come across some who care more about what they want rather than teaching the skills required (prime example is a subject coordinator who refuses disabled students access to lecture recordings). If you don’t meet the “type” then tough luck despite the fact it requires minimal effort on part of the teacher and a huge benifit to the student. I’m not advocating recorded lectuers in place of the real thing (recordings can lead to students trying to cram information and much emphasis is lost in recordings) but getting information out to those who want it would be better than leaving them in the dark.

  6. Emily says:

    Having been an undergraduate student, graduate student, and a professor and having experienced both sides of the evaluative standard, I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Modesitt.

    I have taught introductory courses at a state university, literature courses at an online university, as well as ESL for private schools – all of which I was evaluated by students, and my personal experience with evaluations (in all three cases, instructors were shown course averages, but individual students’ responses were kept anonymous) is that they reflect the findings of national studies: in short, the more As and Bs per course, the better the evaluations, regardless of the course, content, or course expectations (attendance, grading, late work policy, etc.).

    The unfortunate truth of state schools, online universities, and private schools is that a majority of students are not motivated to succeed, being either required by major or parents to take and pass a particular course. I am a frequent reader of the blog, and personal experience leads me to agree with Mr. Modesitt’s comments on the limited work ethic and sense of entitlement of the current generation – and that is not exclusive to American students. As with Mr. Modesitt’s comments, I find this to be more a result of a response to current technologies than any native, cultural alterations.

    Teacher evaluations are simply another outgrowth of the dominance of expectations of immediate returns. If you don’t succeed as quickly as you have come to expect – it must not be your fault. If you receive a poor grade, it must not be because you failed to put in the necessary work, but because the teacher failed you. Or so many students are taught to expect.

    It is a belief system fraught with danger, as we have seen in the short selling and drive for massive quarterly profits in the financial system. I think the problem comes from an unhealthy relationship with our technology, where we have adapted to serve it, rather than forcing it to serve us.

  7. Jerrod Koza says:

    Education is really a vital field, because almost everything in civilization is determined by knowledge. I saw that on a website someplace — a non-profit organization in the Philippines. Teachers bust their tail at their craft (the majority of them, anyway). But there are a few who appear to have a gift to inspire. My senior high school world history teacher was one of those. She had lived in China as a child. When she taught in Rockville, Maryland, you could feel the wisdom of all her experience. She didn’t have us memorize dates. Which had been the first brilliant thing I had heard from a history teacher. What she said next took the subject several magnitudes higher in value. She wanted us to be aware of the motivations of history — the deeply visceral, human issues with what can somewhat be a deadly dry subject. Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver” fame, dared to dream big. Calculus for the typically dropout crowd? Pushing them to go on to college? Wow. And I’ve this publication called, “Calculus Made Easy,” by Sylvanus P. Thompson, first published in 1910. It’s been through a wide selection of printings all to generate a fairly easy subject simple. What are we able to do to create more teachers who inspire world-changing superiority? Einstein once asserted that imagination is a lot more important than knowledge. Knowledge can provide you with the foundation. Imagination usually takes you to the stars. Don’t our kids ought to get better?

  8. Jazmin says:

    Having been an undergraduate student, graduate student, and a professor and having experienced both sides of the evaluative standard, I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Modesitt.

    I have taught introductory courses at a state university, literature courses at an online university, as well as ESL for private schools – all of which I was evaluated by students, and my personal experience with evaluations (in all three cases, instructors were shown course averages, but individual students’ responses were kept anonymous) is that they reflect the findings of national studies: in short, the more As and Bs per course, the better the evaluations, regardless of the course, content, or course expectations (attendance, grading, late work policy, etc.).

    The unfortunate truth of state schools, online universities, and private schools is that a majority of students are not motivated to succeed, being either required by major or parents to take and pass a particular course. I am a frequent reader of the blog, and personal experience leads me to agree with Mr. Modesitt’s comments on the limited work ethic and sense of entitlement of the current generation – and that is not exclusive to American students. As with Mr. Modesitt’s comments, I find this to be more a result of a response to current technologies than any native, cultural alterations.

    Teacher evaluations are simply another outgrowth of the dominance of expectations of immediate returns. If you don’t succeed as quickly as you have come to expect – it must not be your fault. If you receive a poor grade, it must not be because you failed to put in the necessary work, but because the teacher failed you. Or so many students are taught to expect.

    It is a belief system fraught with danger, as we have seen in the short selling and drive for massive quarterly profits in the financial system. I think the problem comes from an unhealthy relationship with our technology, where we have adapted to serve it, rather than forcing it to serve us.

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