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Grade Inflation and Tenure II

July 10, 2006

I will pull out from the comments on the Grade Inflation and Tenure post for a moment and recap the arguments–thanks for those who posted:

· I initially linked fear of bad student evaluations to the rise of grade inflating practices–Profs, especially non-tenured, tt, or adjuncts make their life easier by grading easier.

· Teri qualified that Research I schools look more toward research than student evals and that students don’t take them seriously themselves.

· I extended this by arguing that for Research I schools, maybe they shouldn’t be used at all–yet by their continued use they must serve some function

· Inside the Philosophy Factory further corroborated Teri’s point about tenured faculty pointing out that at his institution tenured Profs don’t give out evals. For non-tenured track, they are used for trend spotting. He then pointed out the practice of student/teacher non-aggression pact”: a sort of quid-pro-quo for helping faculty and student to a better life.

· I wondered in response to this “victimless” crime of grade inflation if business weren’t picking up the tab for this practice.

· Dean Dad brought an admin’s perspective by encouraging the judicious use of contextualization in reading student evals. His being a CC perspective, evals are a vital tool in keeping tabs (necessary) on faculty teaching quality. He goes on to argue that evals are a vital and important means (offering some inferior examples) of collecting this quality-teaching data point.

My initial posting, though, remains: that evals spur grade inflation. A few scenarios to ground this discussion:

The “grunt” institution: with a percentage of tenured faculty, this level of school uses evals as a means of keeping tabs of the instructional quality. Fairness and contextualization are applied to their interpretation, allowing the poor teachers to be flagged for follow-up scrutiny.

Students: they like to feel like they have a voice. They hear that instructor X was let go for poor teaching quality, but instructor Y and Z are still around. Unsure whether their voice is heard, but might take the opportunity to take the effort to comment if the teaching situation is bad enough. A select few actually commend good teaching through these.

Instructors: they like to reduce the number and types of poor evals. Why? Few instructors are comfortable feeling like they are being poorly received. They also know that the more admin looks to others for scrutiny, the better their life is. One way to mitigate the possibility of “flags” is to go easier on the grades (see IPF’s comment above). As an instructor, I know this pull intimately.

The Research institution: with a focus on research, a large portion of tenured are allowed to forgo student evals. Those instances where evals are used are on the adjunct, tt and especially TA sections. Fairness and contextualization are applied to their interpretation, allowing the poor teachers to be flagged for follow-up scrutiny.

Student: Knowing the game, they use the evals, when given, as a means of communicating with other students. Case in point, the graduate school of education at Harvard puts makes available its student evals. They are all right there in a book in the library. The smart student looks up a prof to get a flavor, by reading multiple sections, of the work level, grading practices and general flavor. With such a system in place, evals are taken seriously by enough students that a communication network—sort of a eval WIKI is established.

Instructors: If tenured, know you are untouchable unless you commit a crime. Non-tenured know that good evals sooth only the ego, so put in context and move on. TA’s hope that a good section eval might be used to garner more sections or other such student goodies.

The question remains: are we happy with the use of evals? Is grade inflation just “one of those things” endemic with the system? Does academia really care about grade inflation, aside from a good article or toothless mandate here and there?

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2 Comments
  1. Miranda permalink
    July 10, 2006 9:39 pm

    I just graduated from a cc and the only evals I completed were for teachers trying to tweak their individual pedagogy.

    There were an isolated few I dearly wished I could eviscerate on paper and have administration see. There were also a few who clearly were using their easiness rep to gain good reviews on ratemyprof.com and avoid actually working. I avoided those courses.

  2. Jonathan Dresner permalink
    July 12, 2006 6:31 pm

    I tend to agree that evals are problematic: they can indeed be very useful for spotting truly bad teachers, but the way they are used does lead to grade inflation and other bad teaching habits if taken seriously.

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