Why grades rise

A professor recommends Valen Johnson’s Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education. A Duke statistician, Johnson makes the case that students give good evaluations to instructors from whom they expect good grades. “Since these days student evaluations make or break a young faculty member’s chances for tenure, the end result of the ‘consumerism’ model of education is that many young faculty members feel they must “buy” student favor by giving away high marks, and destroying all sensible standards,” writes the professor, who wishes to remain anonymous.

About Joanne


  1. Joanne, get on over to Tim Blair’s blog and put your two cents worth in over how reading should be taught!!

  2. And yet, I thought that the received wisdom is that student evaluations count for very little in tenure review. See, e.g., the case of the military historian at Yale denied tenure though beloved by the students. I grow confused. Not unusual, but still. Could another explanation be (sorry for the gross generalization that follows) that every student believes its his/her right to a high grade and they’ve been taught to complain until they get what they want/deserve? That is is consumerism and me firstism taken the nth degree? Either way, great blog, I check it out every day!

  3. Steve LaBonne says:

    At liberal arts colleges, as I can testify from personal experience, they count a _lot_, and they have a correspondingly depressing effect on academic standards.

  4. Ouch! Sorry to hear that, Steve. Still, I wonder how anyone can take them seriously. When I was in college at a small north-eastern university (sounds like the beginning of a bad joke), it seemed like the only people filling these out were those with an axe to grind. And even then, the surveys were used chiefly for the unofficial students’ guide to courses.

  5. I teach chemistry at a large research-oriented land-grant university and I can tell you student evaluations of teaching (SET) now count for everything in terms of teaching abilities. During my tenure review I was hassled because of low SET scores in a FEW of my lower division courses (the ones my tenured colleagues REFUSED to teach). This is despite having my students score an average in the mid-60’s percentile on ACS standardized exams in those courses (higher than previous instructors), having a very good track record in upper-division courses and in research.

    Yes, I have colleagues in the sciences tell me that they have been watering down material for better SET over the past 15 or so years.

    I have tenure now, and SET scores still have a strong influence on pay raises. The flagship universities of (University of your state here) use to put out solid grads. At the rate we are headed the system will soon follow the infamous way of CUNY.

  6. Tenure consists of research, service and teaching. And for teaching, you do (unfortunately) need a certain level of student evaluations.

    In addition, even after tenure, there are yearly reviews which decide what pay increases (cost of living, cost of living + 0.5%, etc) you get. Again, student evaluations are taken into account.

    I know from personal experience that students use evaluations to punish teachers for their own failures in coursework but these random blips usually stand out statistically, particularly in larger courses.

    Also, students are looking for different things in different courses. For the *huge*, early-morning classes they wanted to be entertained and given predictable work and easy tests. For smaller seminars, they wanted lots of classroom discussion, As and Bs for a moderate level of effort on term projects.

    And, always, a depressing majority want to be “learned” by the teacher rather than apply themself outside of class.

  7. a few things:

    If I get evals claiming I covered too much information as well as evals claiming I didn’t go into enough depth for the same course, I figure that means I probably hit the happy medium.

    I’ve seen very wide differences in evals from an 8 am class and an 11 am class – same subject, same instructor, taught the same way – the 8 am class complained a lot more about being bored, or the course being too hard.

    In my department it’s generally known there are certain classes that you just get lower evals for, regardless of how well you teach them. (There are also cases of classes that are *very* involved and difficult, and yet the instructor pulls down high evals every semester – I aspire to be like him)

    my evals are generally par for the department, no one said boo when I came up for tenure about it. (I guess this is one case where being average is OK).

    I don’t like student evaluations, especially the comments. I get a lot of wonderful comments (like the ones that say “I never liked science at all before I took your class, you helped me understand why it was important”) but it’s the destructively-critical ones I remember.

    I also get a lot of complaints that one of my classes is “too math-oriented” but I kind of wear that as a badge of honor – our students are in the lower tier of math ability on the ACT and one thing I strive to do is show them practical and important uses of math in the sciences.

    I still hate reading the evals; it seems mine always come in at a time when I’m stressed from final grading or otherwise vulnerable; I’ve been known to close my office door so no one will see me cry over a harsh comment.

  8. Steve LaBonne says:

    The “student as consumer” model could work only if the students were held just as strongly accountable for their learning as professors are for their teaching. Only if they really needed a high level of achievement to get good grades and remain in desirable majors would students be motivated to reward professors who cause them to learn a lot rather than the easy-grading entertainers. But where is the external force that could set and enforce those standards? With a couple of generations of academics having grown up with these perverse incentives since the lunatics were first put in charge of the asylum in the 60s, I’m afraid I don’t see a path back to sanity.

  9. “With a couple of generations of academics having grown up with these perverse incentives since the lunatics were first put in charge of the asylum in the 60s, I’m afraid I don’t see a path back to sanity.”

    So what did they do prior to the 60s before the lunatics began running the asylum?

  10. Steve LaBonne says:

    They didn’t allow students to pervert academic standards by administering rewards and punishments to the faculty. As I used to make myself unpopular with my senior colleagues by saying, if the students know better than the faculty what their educational needs are (as the consmuer model would have it) then why are they paying the faculty? Actually, what is going on now isn’t even captured by the cliche of students as consumers; an _intelligent_ consumer doesn’t deal with professionals this way. I certainly consult with my physician about my health care, but I don’t rate him according to whether he concedes to my wishes (for an easier diet, for example 😉 ) against his professional judgement.

  11. Steve,

    I was struck by the contrast between your sensible comment (and the small likelihood of it happening) and the post Joanne had about the woman thanking a teacher for flunking her daughter. Its hard to picture that happening today, isn’t it?

    In any event, I find the concept of, what, teaching to the evaluation?, depressing. It sounds like it will result in horrible consequences for society as a whole.

  12. James Schwartz says:

    I can tell you from experience that student evaluations mean EVERYTHING in terms of tenure and promotion at some places. At one institution I had student evals that averaged 4.1 on a 5 point scale (5 being good). The institutional average was about 4.5, so I was seen as below average for that university. This was not good enough to earn tenure. The only area that was cited was “teaching.” There were no other complaints from any of my evaluators. And teaching is my discipline. I teach teachers. And I have over 25 years of successful teaching under my belt. It baffles me that people who are otherwise considered intelligent cannot see through the haze of what student evaluation is all about.


  13. Sorry, but anyone who’s crying over some student evaluation is too unstable to teach my kid.
    In the real world, if you don’t perform, your company might not make enough money to keep you around.

  14. Roberto,
    Not everyone in the real world is a dick who can’t stomach someone showing emotion. I have plenty of experience in the “real world” and I have seen coworkers break down several times. They performed but after they performed they broke down. I had a boss at one stage that would occasionally express himself so strongly in a meeting that someone would leave the room in tears. I am not saying that leaving a meeting in tears is a desirable trait but I am saying that someone can be extremely competent and still cry on occasion. Just like you are probably extremely competent at your job but you are a dick and I would not want to work for anyone like you. That does not make you a horrible person by any means, just not someone who I would enjoy being around.

  15. “Sorry, but anyone who’s crying over some student evaluation is too unstable to teach my kid.” I’ve spent my entire career in the private sector. I’ve had employees–including very competent and valuable ones–cry on several occasions. Emotion is not outlawed in the “real world.”

  16. It strikes me that student evaluations of professors can work well only if the *student* is graded not only by the prof teaching the course, but by an independent party. Consider the case of aviation. Students can select their own flight instructors. So is there an incentive to pick those who are “easy?” No…because after the instruction is done, the student will be tested by a standardized written test and will have a flight test conducted by an FAA Designated Examiner. So the student’s incentive is to find an instructor with whom he has good chemistry and with whom he can really learn the material, rather than an “easy” one.

  17. And then of course there the little matter of not learning enough in the flight class to safely fly the plane. Students in my literature and composition classes don’t have to worry about thi; they can only figuratively crash and burn.

    Student evaluations are complete and utter bullshit. Every term, I get evaluations that say I was too hard, I was too easy, I was never available outside of class, I was always available outside of class, there was too much reading, there wasn’t enough reading, I was unclear about my grading standards, I was clear about my grading standards, etc., etc.

    Since some of the students do sign the evaluations, I have the option of going back and looking to see what the correlation is between the evaluation and the grade.

    I have discovered two things. People who I give C’s and under to will, 9 times out of 10, give me a bad evaluation. People I give A’s and B’s to will generally give me good evaluations.

    However, since many of my colleagues–professors and fellow graduate students–have lowered their standards considerably, I will sometimes get a bad evaluation from someone I gave a B or even an A- to, telling me that I am too hard and that they get A’s in all their other English classes.

    Occasionally the C student will give me a good evaluation, because they appreciated the chance to improve. This happens maybe once a year.

    Conversely, I occasionally get a bad eval from an A student, because I have watered down the course content too much. This happens once every couple of years at most.

    Simply put, most students are not capable of evaluating an instructor using standards that actually mean something.

    Here’s an insightful essay that deals, in part, with the idiocy of student evals:


  18. Most of the studies I have seen on student evaluations says that they do have some validity but not much. It would seem to me that if the evaluations were used as a feedback tool to the course instructor the student evaluations would have value. I think it would be great if professors could be be evaluated based on their student’s performance on a common final exam. Wouldn’t it be great to see the results of the Ivy League schools compared to the “Podunk” schools? I suspect the Ivy’s would do extremely well but that there would be a few state schools that would surprise some people.

  19. Steve LaBonne says:

    Random, that’s pretty much the crap I was getting. I taught a challenging sophomore-level course that always pissed off some of the slackers(Genetics- which they’ve stopped teaching since I left!) and after a couple of go-rounds was getting _as good or better_ evaluations than _anyone_ had gotten as long as the course had been taught. But that somehow wasn’t good enough (for some powerful idiots in other departments; my own department thought I was doing just fine). I essentially guaranteed I’d get bounced by telling them what they could do with their stupid ideas about teaching, and I’ve been far happier since I left academia and got an honest job.

  20. M. J. Wise says:

    The question is, if student evaluations are for crap, then what should be used to evaluate teaching aptitude of professors? I am an A/B student who has had about 25 professors now. Most of them were good to great, but I’ve had 2 real stinkers, and I don’t classify them with that term because of difficulty. One was a “distinguished” Chemistry professor who had written a truly unremarkable gen. chemistry book and foisted it upon the class who were unwitting “testers” of it. It was incomplete and he simply read from it everyday. Not very difficult, but terrible. The second, who I’m still in with class for a few days yet, is bad because he’s a lousy (and frequently underprepared) lecturer and assigns reams of work that are there simply to consume time.

    Without class evaluations, I’d have limited ways to give feedback about their effectiveness. (Regarding the latter professor, there have been visits to the department chair over him, which is only viable if the dept. chair cares.) I get the general feeling here that there’s a belief that professors can do no wrong and if they receive bad evaluations, the students, administrators, etc. are all on a mission against them. Both the professors I mentioned were and are absolutely convinced of this sort of fact when it simply was not true.

  21. Last semester was my first time teaching Expository Writing I. I followed all of the instructions the GTAs were given in Practicum on what to teach and how to teach it. Most of my scores were high, but most of the students complained about busy work. I scrapped the plans and taught the stuff the way I thought it should be taught this semester. I haven’t had a single complaint about busywork. I also haven’t had a complaint this semester about the coursework doing nothing but wasting their time. What did I do? I stiffened the coursework _and_ the grading.

  22. Here’s how it works at most high research universities:

    If your research is well enough regarded, you get through even if you’re Attila the Hun in the classroom. Period.

    If your research is bad enough, nothing will get you through.

    It’s the borderline that’s tricky. For the average professor with a case that’s not a slam dunk, service and teaching will play a role. More at some places than others. Some schools will also look to teaching evals if they purposely want to can someone who has a case that might be ok, but whom they don’t want on the team — or vice versa.

  23. Student evals are interesting, and I can use them to adjust my courses, but they need to be taken with a grain of salt. I did a private evaluation this year (I’m the only one who sees the results). I glanced over the bubbles before I sent it in, and I saw that some students rated me “fair” or “poor” on getting back graded assignments to them. Well, I get all assignments graded and returned within two days. Whatever. I also noticed some students rated me all very high, and some all very low. There may be some consistency problems with my teaching, and I’m going to think about that this summer, but I suspect the ratings have more to do with whether they liked me as a person than whether or not they thought I’d taught them a lot.

    Students do make nasty, hurtful comments sometimes. It is very, very hard not to take it personally. About this time of year, when I’m exhausted and tired of sacrificing all my time to schoolwork and my students, those comments can be especially painful because the evoke some bitterness, too.

  24. Steve LaBonne says:

    M. J. Wise, _careful_ reading and use of student evaluations, which can distinguish useful feedback like (hopefully) yours from the noise, can be _one_ element used in the responsible judging of teaching effectiveness. If you ever saw an entire set of a professor’s student evals. for a course and saw for yourself the volume of blatantly contradictory comments, vindictive personal attacks, and other noise that we’ve been discussing, you’d understand the pitfalls a lot better. Unfortunately, most institutions are taking the easy way out by overemphasiaing raw, uninterpreted numerical averages of survey responses. Often they even display unalloyed statistical illiteracy by making a big deal of numerical differences that clearly are not statistically significant (my college took the averages out to two decimal places!)

    The bad professors your describe are bad in obvious ways that I’m sure nobody in the department is unaware of. The problem here is not lack of information, but lack of any way to force _tenured_ faculty to shape up. That’s why I don’t believe in tenure, at least not without significant modifications such as periodic reviews required for contract renewal. Tenure doesn’t protect academic freedom in the way its proponents claim; first of all pre-tenure and untenured faculty have _zero_ academic freedom since they’re completely at the mercy of their tenured “colleagues”; second of all, being able to count on keeping your job no matter what does far more to promote complacency and early retirement at full pay than it does to protect genuine scholars who have unpopular opinions.

    Some other potentially useful sources of information are observations by experienced colleagues; surveys of _former_ students a couple of years down the road, when they have actually needed to use the stuff they hopefully learned in the course, and thus are in a much better position to know whether it was really a successful course; and measurement of what the students have actually learned against some objective standard (in my opinion American colleges and universities need to make more use of examinations set by scholars outside the institution, as I believe happens in some other countries; having every instructor set his or her own private standards works no better in higher education than it does in K-12.) But no sensible person ever claimed that useful evaluation of teaching was an easy task.

  25. Mad Scientist says:

    If you do not have the people who have the responsibility of deciding things like pay raises or tenure (i.e., administration, department heads, and deans) actually do the evaluations, then evaluations are total bullshit.

  26. Mad Scientist,
    I fail to see how being an administrator, a department head, or a dean automatically makes one and expert on the evaluation of a teacher. If the person determines the raise relies on the opinion of someone with more knowledge in that domain I don’t see how that is a bad thing. Maybe you can explain it to me.

  27. Here’s an idea: Let the professors do evaluations of their students. Each student gets a packet with all of the feedback from all of their professors. They may or may not know exactly which professors said what. Put the shoe on the other foot, and see how the evaluations change.

    Won’t happen, I know. But I can fantasize, can’t I?


  1. Shhh… You’re Not Supposed To Talk About That!

    Deadbeat moms: For fourteen years, judge Steven Wakefield has paid such high child support for a son who spends half his time with him that the mother has never been on welfare. Nor worked. She spends much of her time