The saddest and most profound transformation I have witnessed nationwide in my many decades in higher education is professors’ increasing fear of college students. This fear, borne of the increasing power of undergraduates’ influence on professors’ careers through invalid teaching evaluations and the profound ethic of expediency encouraging the coddling of students in the academy, cannot be overestimated.
Earlier this year I published a letter to the editor in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Student Evaluations Will Never Be Very Valid or Valuable.” I closed the piece with this short paragraph:
The fact is that every couple of years, scholars and others will come up with new “answers” on how to make student evaluations more valid and important, but they cannot do so. Use student evaluations for retention, promotion, and tenure, but use them tenuously only.
After much thought and reflection, I wish to amend that sentiment: I want to state more firmly that teaching evaluations cannot be made valid or valuable and strongly advise that they not be used more consequentially. They should be expunged for the purposes of retention, promotion, and tenure, and they should not be used for hiring purposes.
Student classroom evaluations of courses and professors should be eliminated. If they must be kept at all, they should be replaced by student accounts of measurable teacher behaviors on which students have the ability to report with some accuracy and validity. For example, does the professor show up for class regularly? Does he or she arrive on time? Does he or she grade consistently with his or her claims of criteria?
Questions like these might constitute valid data from students. Student evaluations of professorial teaching, currently used in just about every college and university, do not — at all.
I recall that my best professor ever, the late Dr. Trevor Melia of the University of Pittsburgh, showed how easily students can be manipulated into evaluating courses positively through pedagogical legerdemain. He would give easy tests before evaluations, mark them with an overly generous curve, and then compliment the class on doing superbly on such a tough test. The result? Happy students and positive evaluations.
In addition to their easy manipulability, the measures used in many schools to assess student satisfaction and dissatisfaction with professors and courses in the internet age ignore the requirement of representative numbers of student responses. Online evaluations, the current norm, often yield invalid and insufficient numbers of responses and tend to attract polarized students who either love or hate the professor and/or course.
Professors — particularly non-tenured professors and adjuncts — are frightened that negative teaching evaluations can and will lessen their chances of being hired at new schools, retained at their current schools, promoted, and/or tenured.
Demographic factors also affect and infect teaching evaluations — yet another reason to reject evaluations’ false assessment of teaching effectiveness.
There is an unholy alliance between professors who want these benefits and students who want easier courses and higher grades, leading to another serious issue surrounding student evaluations: egregious grade inflation.
At the valuable site GradeInflation.com, cited often at Forbes Magazine and elsewhere, it is noted that helping students through easy grading started as professors tried to keep their students from serving in Vietnam in the 1960s. But there has been an incredible increase since 1983:
As of 2013, “A” was the most common grade by far and was close to becoming the majority grade at private schools. America’s professors and college administrators have been promoting a fiction that college students routinely study long and hard, participate actively in class, write impressive papers, and ace their tests. The truth is that, for a variety of reasons, professors today commonly make no distinctions between mediocre and excellent student performance and are doing so from Harvard to CSU-San Bernardino.
Fear for students has devolved into fear of students.
This is one of the few topics in the academy on which there is a liberal and conservative consensus. The responses of academics who disagree and support the cachet that student evaluations enjoy are invariably positive reactions of low intensity, and they include most prominently those who have benefited from the evaluations and those who want some empirical measure that is hard to dispute because of its apparent specificity: say, a 4.36 in “professor’s knowledge of the material” (one of the standard categories students have little clue in assessing).
These “realists” believe the best way to deal with teaching evaluations is a strategy of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Scandalously, more and more professors now provide midterm student evaluations, the results of which they are not required to submit in annual reports of their teaching, scholarship, and service.
These professors canvas their students to ascertain what students “like” or “dislike” about the teacher, course style, and content. Then, if they find something that will win student support, they will change the course to accommodate and maximize majoritarian backing: more or less class discussion, harder (rare) or easier tests, harder (rare) or easier grading, inclusion or exclusion (rare) of sexier topics, and the like.
None of this improves the value a course or the validity of student likes and dislikes, but it indubitably increases the probability of higher evaluations and their effects on professorial benefits and peace of mind. Their sections get more students and the incidence of disappointed students gets less and less.
Some of the arguments against eliminating current student evaluation instruments include the claim that “they will never go away,” a self-fulfilling prophecy that can guarantee their permanence. Sometimes it takes courage, clear and simple, to eliminate flaws in popular student activities. Those who gain from the current system of students’ analyses and judgments of professors and their teaching need to be at the forefront of their virtual elimination. It takes integrity to oppose a bogus system from which one gains.
Speaking of which, let me express my credentials to speak on this matter, credentials that are relevant to my subject and for my call for an end to student teaching evaluations, save for professorial attendance issues and other responsibilities. This is my 50th year of teaching university and college students: first as a teaching assistant at innumerable schools in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, such as the University of Pittsburgh and the Penn State McKeesport campus, then as an instructor at North Carolina State University, and finally at Towson State College, which later became Towson University.
In those many years I have taught over 400 classes, which have yielded positive and often sterling teaching evaluations (although less positive, but not less sterling as a plurality, in the last several years) and one class evaluation (by six dissatisfied students — remember the increasingly small online response rate) that yielded an unmistakably negative verdict on my teaching. I have won many teaching awards and have been recognized for my teaching at my national and regional academic associations.
Teaching is a noble calling, and good teaching is not accurately inferred from, as the cliché goes, a popularity contest. It is analogous to the mother or father who believes that prudent tough love is critical in good parenting even if one’s children have a short-term problem with discipline.
Getting good teaching evaluations is not difficult. Teaching well is a complicated enterprise involving professorial expertise (students cannot measure this), articulation (students cannot measure this), judgment (students cannot measure this), the ability to measure what students apprehend (students cannot measure this), and fairness (only a minority of students can measure this).
Students can assess how much they enjoy classes in the near term; they cannot assess how much a class will mean to them in five, 10, or more years. How often I have heard university alumni declaim on how much a professor they had in years past meant to them without their realizing it at the time.
Let’s eliminate or radically change most current teaching evaluation instruments. They have little if any value in measuring good teaching, and they are devaluing further the mission of higher education, which requires that those in charge and responsible for teaching undergraduate and graduate students are the professors, not the students, who now have us intimidated.