Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Students = Customers?

Student-evaluation forms are very much like customer-complaint forms. So, it is not surprising that teachers end up behaving like salesmen and -women who know "the importance of keeping the customer satisfied":
As an assistant professor of marketing, Robert S. Owen knows the importance of keeping the customer satisfied. His job depends on it.

That's why, in his courses at the State University of New York College at Oswego, he gives multiple-choice rather than essay exams and asks students to evaluate research papers rather than write their own. A student who questions the fairness of a question on a test might receive extra credit simply for expressing interest.

"If students come to my office," he says, "I have to make sure they walk out happy."

Dr. Owen learned that lesson the hard way. Three years ago, he lost his job at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania when students gave his teaching mixed reviews. He describes himself as a casualty of an era in which administrators increasingly rely on student evaluations of teaching to decide who gets tenure and who doesn't.

"The student in college is being treated as a customer in a retail environment," he says, "and I have to worry about customer complaints." (Robin Wilson, "New Research Casts Doubt on Value of Student Evaluations of Professors," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 6, 1998)
That's a shame -- according to recent research, student evaluations aren't good measures of teaching:
"Evaluations may encourage faculty to grade easier and make course workloads lighter," says Anthony G. Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington who wrote the article ["Grading Leniency Is a Removable Contaminant of Student Ratings"] in American Psychologist [November 1997]. He and Gerald Gilmore, director of the university's Office of Educational Assessment, examined student ratings of hundreds of courses at Washington and found that professors who are easy graders receive better evaluations than do professors who are tougher.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . Stephen J. Ceci, a Cornell University professor who wrote the article ["'How'm I Doing': Concerns about the Use of Student Ratings of Instructors and Courses"] on the study in Change [September/October 1997], the monthly magazine of the American Association for Higher Education, says one student suggested in an evaluation that he stop wearing a pair of orange corduroy pants. "You look like you work at Hardees," the student wrote.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . Dr. Ceci had taught developmental psychology at Cornell for nearly 20 years and was drawing mediocre reviews. Administrators had even asked him to attend a workshop with a "media consultant" to try to spice up his lectures.

To Dr. Ceci, the situation became an opportunity for research: What if he could improve his ratings simply by being a more enthusiastic lecturer, as the media consultant had advised? What would that say about the value of student ratings?

During a recent spring semester (Dr. Ceci would not identify which one), the professor taught developmental psychology covering the same material as in the previous semester, and using the same textbook he had used for years. But he added more hand gestures to his teaching style, varied the pitch of his voice, and generally tried to be more exuberant. The outcome was astounding: Students' ratings of Dr. Ceci soared. They even gave higher marks to the textbook, a factor that shouldn't have been affected by differences in his teaching style.

Despite the higher ratings, however, Dr. Ceci found no real improvement in students' performance on exams in the spring compared to those in the fall. He concluded that his new teaching style was probably no more effective than his old one. (Wilson, January 6, 1998)
Last month, Stanley Fish published his humorous account of civil disobedience against reduction of students to customers every semester:
Well, I'd gone and done it again. My intentions were good (or so it seemed to me at the time). I had brought the student-evaluation forms with me on the appointed day, but when the class was over, and the students had filed out for the last time, there was the large envelope, unopened.

I threw it in the trash and walked back to my office. ("Who's In Charge Here?" Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2005)
Would conservatives object? If they do, we ought to remind them that history's first professional teachers -- sophists, Plato, Aristotle, etc. -- celebrated by conservative proponents of restoration of classics -- did not administer student evaluation forms, nor did they take attendance and give their students grades. Theirs was a pedagogy of love.

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