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Professor Bonuses Based on Course Evaluations?

Forget a PhD - profs might do better with improv training and Botox (seriously, attractive professors - especially attractive men - get better evaluations!). Reported this morning in the Chronicle:
The chancellor of the Texas A&M University system wants to give faculty members bonuses of up to $10,000, based on student evaluations, but some professors are raising concerns about the plan, saying it could become a popularity contest....Though details are preliminary, officials said, the goal is to offer awards starting at $2,500 to the top 15 percent of participating instructors.
To be sure, good teaching is insufficiently rewarded at most colleges and universities. But according to the Chancellor, “This is customer satisfaction....It doesn’t have to do with tenure, promotion, status. It has to do with students’ having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.”

But is good teaching the same thing as "customer satisfaction?" Is there a better way to recognize and reward effective college teaching? Or, as one commenter at the Chronicle augured, are we left with this bargain?
Wow. What an easy way to make up to 10,000 dollars! Just water-down my courses, make no demands on students, make sure to bring donuts or some sort of snacks on the day of evaluations, and make sure my students know I think they are incredibly bright and they will get an A. Cha-ching!

You have a really low opinion of university students. Every evaluation form I've ever filled out was substantive enough to rate most of the important aspects of the class I took. The best evaluations I've given were based upon my respect of the professor and what the course added to my life. I've given lousy evaluations to instructors whose classes were easy A's. I've given good evaluations to teachers when the grade I earned was lower.

I only know the data from my home department, but it (to some extent) bears out what you say--there is no correlation between student ratings and rated difficulty of the course. BUT on the larger issue, I agree with 'wonkette. . .if you're going to pay differentially, pay based on the goals of the job to be done. And the job to be done is to ensure student learning, which is probably related to, but different than, pleasing students. Most of us have had a professor whose methods we didn't like (and to whom we gave a poor evaluation) but later we had to admit to ourselves that we learned a lot in the course.

I disagree with the statement that "good teaching is is insufficiently rewarded at most colleges and universities." At most colleges and universities it's one of two criteria on which faculty performance is judged (the other being service). There are thousands of post-secondary institutions in the US and only a handful (say, 200-300) have serious expectations for research and make that a really tough criterion for promotion.

Loren - College students are human, just like everyone else. And for the most part, students don't like getting mediocre grades. I've seen a number of papers that find a grade/evaluation relationship, such that giving better grades results in better evaluations.

Dan - Point well taken about the research vs teaching universities - obviously my blind spot here.

The more I think about this, the more it seems crazy to compare across disciplines. For example, can we really compare the evaluations of required math and statistics courses (which enroll many students that are not enthusiastic about taking these courses) with the evaluations of art history or literature electives?

As a high school teacher, I bug the crap out of my kids so they do the work, and generally, it works.

I used to do the same in my college classes, and got approval ratings around 75-80%. A few students who didn't like homework told me I wasn't friendly enough. When I stopped bugging the college students, my approval ratings hovered closer to 100%, falling below a point or two only for my persistently atrocious handwriting.

But my bosses loved my new ratings, so I stopped insisting on homework. Frankly, I think the nagging high school teacher would serve the just-out-of-high-school students better. But if they want me to play for ratings, I can do that too.

In law school, we submitted course evaluations (online) during the week or two leading up to exams. We were not allowed to submit evaluations of our professors after the grades were distributed. This approach would eliminate the possibility of grades influencing the evaluations, as eduwonkette mentioned above. It was a great resource for checking out professors for future courses...the completed comments were available for review to all the law school's students.

Of course, this worked best in law school, where there generally weren't any grades until the final exam. Only a few courses had a mid-term or intermittent projects or papers. Probably 75-80% of classes had no grade until the final. Therefore, probably this method has more limited application in undergrad classes.


I don't doubt what you say. But if evaluations for pay became institutionalized, what would educational values be in a generation.

I'd generalize this to a broader inendictment of the market, data-oriented "reformers. " They need to play out the chess games. Do we really want traditional liberal arts values replaced by pay for "Performance?" What is the longterm cost on putting a pricetag on everything?

My experience is that student evaluation aren't as shallow as easy=good, I'd be wary of letting them become the only measure of a faculty members teaching.

Its almost as if the college view of "pay for performance" has taken the exact opposite tack from K-12. In K-12 its all about test scores and value added; at the college level its all about the student's immediate, intuitive experience of the class.

It seems to me at both levels there should be a way for teachers/departments/schools to agree on what the objectives of a class are, and on reasonable ways to measure whether students meet those objectives.

It seems like a lot of talk about pay-for-performance wants to short-cut the hard work involved in setting and measuring realistic concrete objectives. Either it's pre-packaged standardized tests, or it's what the students think.

Rachel does a nice job of summing up the discussion in the previous post.

One thing I might add: I'd give about as much credence to student evaluations as I would to administrator evals, in K-12, unless the teacher was egregiously bad in ways that students might not recognize (i.e.,unethical behavior). Administrators are just as prone to evaluating a teacher's work using their own values/needs as students are (Does this teacher do what I did, when I was in the classroom? Will this teacher support me when I change lunch duty?).

I am always amused when commentators start advocating for more administrative power in getting rid of "bad" teachers. A lot of excruciatingly dull, marginally competent folks who never rock the boat would be safe--and effective-but-mouthy types would have to watch their backs.

If nobody else will defend student evaluations, then I'll be the sacrificial lamb.

Are they perfect? Of course not. But I have yet to hear another measure that would be even close -- either in validity or in practicality. I have to believe that if one wants to measure teaching at the university level it will usually boil down to student evaluations or nothing (unless we're planning on implementing standardized tests, or dept. chairs are going to sit in on all the classes).

I don't know the research base on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if student evaluations of college courses were more meaningful than administrator evaluations of K-12 teachers -- think about, who knows the teacher better?

And it continues to strike me as odd that we treat professors and K-12 teachers so differently when their jobs are so similar.

Like Corey, I offer a defense of student evaluations, which, now that I am full-time college instructor, I find to be very valuable. So much so that I have redesigned the final exams in my Freshman Comp classes to give students a chance to reflect on their own learning over the course of the semester AND on the course itself. I have found the students to be highly perceptive and generally honest in their comments. It does make a difference that I am at the community college where the focus is on teaching rather than research or tenure.
Just like K-12, however, the quality of teachers' work (just like that of students) should be evaluated using multiple measures.

A number of people have contrasted student evaluations in college with administrator evaluations K-12.

And I'm wondering -- do parent/student evaluations have a place in K-12 evaluations? My sense is that its something that would be even more controversial than using test scores.

Rachel: student/parent surveys are part of my evaluation as a high school teacher (I'm tenured, so I'm evaluated every three years). I've never thought much about them one way or the other since they generally come back positive (I'm not all that and a slice a cake --I think it's just that they tend to be filled out by parents who want to do something for me because I went the extra mile with that particular cherub -- I've had a parent tell my admin I'm evil, too -- so it goes).

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Lightly Seasoned: Rachel: student/parent surveys are part of my evaluation as a read more
  • Rachel: A number of people have contrasted student evaluations in college read more
  • Renee Moore: Like Corey, I offer a defense of student evaluations, which, read more
  • Corey: If nobody else will defend student evaluations, then I'll be read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Rachel does a nice job of summing up the discussion read more




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