Student evaluations fair? Biased rating harmful to effective reflection

Ngoc Vo


As registration for the spring classes is around the corner, students are checking the website for reviews of professors and courses.

While students should utilize the ratings and comments on their teachers as they shop for classes, education is a unique market where customer satisfaction does not necessarily reflect the quality of service. A student may give a professor a low rating simply because he or she thinks the course requires too much work.

Biased rating is especially harmful when it is reported on the official student evaluation of teaching that Troy students are encouraged to fill out online at the end of each course.

Through some discussion with assistant professor Susan Sarapin from the Hall School of Journalism and Communication, it was brought to my attention that the skewed evaluations are an issue of great concern for her and her colleagues.

“What I have found is that very few students fill out (the evaluation), and the ones who do seem to be the ones with gripe,” Sarapin said. “They make personal criticisms and inappropriate rants just because the teacher wants more work than they expected.

“We are looking for clear and reasonable criticism to help us design better courses … I’m not sure students understand the importance of these evaluations to a professor’s career.”

According to Earl Ingram, senior vice chancellor of academic affairs, the student evaluation of the course is one element of the annual teaching effectiveness evaluation made by a faculty’s department chair on all the courses he or she teaches.

Ingram said the chair’s evaluation of teaching effectiveness (EoTE) will be determined by students’ official evaluations, direct interaction with students, complaints and other reports. Occasionally, department chairs also come to classes to observe the teaching for themselves.

“For (tenure-track faculty), the No. 1 thing we look at when we evaluate their applications for tenure is the department chair’s evaluation of teaching effectiveness,” Ingram said.

Other aspects of tenure considerations include services and research, he said. The chair’s EoTE is also very important for non-tenure faculty, such as lecturers and adjuncts, to be able to renew their contracts.

“(Student evaluation) has the ability to be good,” said Phillip Mixon, a tenured associate professor of economics and finance. “With the way it’s done, it is useless. With the way it is distributed, there is no real incentive for students to do it. (Students who fill out evaluations) either hate or love me. My evaluation is bi-modal.”

According to Ingram, for last spring semester, only 35 percent of students across Troy campuses and e-Troy submitted the online teaching evaluation form.

The inability of this student evaluation method to paint an accurate picture of teaching effectiveness raises another concern. As grade inflation is becoming a national trend among higher education institutions, I wonder whether faculty members are giving out higher grades for fear of bad evaluations.

Mixon said he did not think the student evaluations make professors grade easier.

“When I got here, I was told to do what I do best, and the evaluations will be what they are,” he said.

Sarapin, who is on the tenure track, said, generally, it does happen that teachers become more lenient in grading.

“Personally, I cannot follow that path,” she said. “I think that’s a disservice for students because I want to prepare them for the world outside of college.”

“I’m finding that students view a C as a failing grade, and somehow they feel entitled to an A. To them, there no such thing as an average student, as C means average performance. Sometimes their expectation is higher than their ability would justify. Moreover, we are on a system that doesn’t allow plus or minus, making it harder for students to know accurately where they stand.”

Some of the common ways to raise grades includes curving and giving extra credits.

“I curve to get the class’s average to where it should be after I teach the course,” Mixon said. “My method of curving does not affect grade distribution. The difference is I give more D’s than F’s.”

Mixon said a student’s result in his class remains accurate when compared with other students in the same course. As for comparing his students with others outside of his classes, Mixon said his rationale for curving is that “if you get an A in my class, you’ll get an A in any (economics) courses. I look at grade distribution as part of consideration, to make sure the rigor is still there.”

Ingram said there is a historical expectancy of what grades might be expected to look like for particular courses.

“Curving is an artificial way to account for an assessment approach that is not yet accurate on the part of the assessor (teacher),” Ingram said. “I have seen new faculty both ways (grading too hard or too easily). It is about growing as a teacher.”

Sarapin said personally, she does not like curving.

“I want to work with students to bring their real grade up as opposed to bringing my expectation down,” she said. “I prefer to give extra credits, though I don’t promise them for every course. Extra credit exercises are for students who want to work harder to improve, not something easy to justify the addition of five points.”

Ingram said one possible cause for grade inflation is if faculty is basing the grade on knowledge more so than knowledge application.

“Nowadays, it is easier for students to access knowledge,” he said. “But knowledge itself is not all that education is about.”

John Dew, senior vice chancellor of student services, gave another possible explanation for high grades among Troy students in an email reply to my inquiry about Troy’s undergraduate average GPA. Troy’s Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness offices have not provided the figure for Troy’s GPA.

“Unlike any other public institution in Alabama, the majority of Troy’s students are adults taking most of their classes online,” he said. “This may pull our GPA average up, since adult students are usually more focused than traditional age students and often make better grades.”

Ingram also advised against looking at the average school GPA for an accurate picture of students. Rather, he suggested comparing the percentages of students who graduate with honors in particular programs.

In my opinion, though the official student evaluation aims to serve students better, it is unrealistic to expect students to take the time to complete it without any instant gratification for them. I have yet to be able to come up with any better incentive for students to fill out such evaluations than the students’ own realization that they could play a role in the administration’s hiring decisions.

Students can also make sure their grades reflect correctly their performance, so that the degree that they have spent so much time and money on will retain its value as academic rigor persists.

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