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Spring Fervour

US college students have a big say in how lecturers are graded, and it affects standards, argues Paul Trout

At the end of the spring semester, college students throughout the United States will rate their instructors on how well they knew the course material, showed "concern" for students, graded "fairly," etc. Administrators will then crunch the numbers and use them - with other material - to decide whether instructors deserve pay increases, retention, tenure and promotion.

Procedures differ from campus to campus, but evaluation scores are almost always the primary way to assess teaching. The use of numerical forms to reward and punish instructors is supposed to improve teaching, but in reality it is doing more to dumb it down than any other policy or practice on campus.

Here's how it works. Every year I compete with my colleagues for a share of merit-pay money. The amount I get depends on how a committee of colleagues evaluates the quality of my work in three areas: service, scholarship and teaching. If I "meet expectations," no bonus money, but if I "exceed expectations" in a category, I get a share. I do best, of course, if I "exceed" in all three.

In my department, to "exceed" in teaching, I have to receive scores of at least 3.6 on a scale of 4. To get scores this high, I have to make a lot of students happy. There's the rub.

What makes many students happy nowadays? "Understanding" and "friendly" instructors, "comfortable" courses and "fair" grades. To translate: teachers who are not demanding, workloads that are not taxing and grading standards that are not high.

Studies have found that students give lower ratings to instructors who have high standards and requirements - two attributes closely associated with student learning. One study found that for every 10% increase in the amount of material students learned, the professor's rating decreased by a half-point. The researcher advised professors seeking a perfect rating "to teach nothing and give at least 66% of the class As."

Many college students are unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Growing numbers cannot read, write or compute proficiently and have, at best, only a weak grasp of basic historical and cultural information. Students with these handicaps rarely appreciate being made to read, write and reason cogently.

Even worse, many students now coming to college have almost no desire to learn or understand things outside their narrow vocational interest. According to a UCLA survey, 40% of each freshman class is "disengaged" from educational values and pursuits. Students are inattentive, easily bored and unwilling to work hard, especially on difficult or abstract material outside their interests.

Because of numerical evaluation forms, these students have a powerful say in how hard they are worked and graded. To get high scores, most instructors have to please them, or at least not upset them. Even a few students, angry about a demanding workload (or a C grade) can have a devastating effect on evaluation scores simply by giving an instructor "zeros".

Untenured and part-time instructors are especially vulnerable, because low evaluation scores can threaten their jobs. A few years ago an untenured faculty member told me that after receiving low scores, he consciously made his course easier. "I watered it down," he said. "If I weren't afraid of these teaching evaluations, I would have done it differently."

Tenured professors - as reward-driven as anyone else outside a Trappist monastery - can also cave in to the perverse incentives of the reward system. If even Mark Edmundson, a six-figure full professor at the University of Virginia, complied with student demands for "comfortable, less challenging" classes - as he admitted doing - what sort of heroic resistance can be expected from those trying to reach a salary of $50,000 before retirement?

No one can say precisely how many instructors have dumbed down their courses. But an extrapolation from one study would suggest that a third of the 900,000 instructors in higher education may have eased their requirements and standards. If this system is to be dismantled, it will be up to US taxpayers, parents, legislators, public-interest law firms and alumni to bring about changes.

Paul Trout is a professor of English at Montana State University
From Washington Post Reprinted in The Guardian Weekly 23-3-2000, page 24

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