Paying Popular Professors More

Texas A&M is going to pay $10,000 bonuses to professors who get good student evaluations, Inside Higher Ed reports, to the consternation of those who think students are poor judges of professors.

The reason for passing on a chance at $10,000 is that many professors are frustrated by the way the money is being distributed: based solely on student evaluations. Numerous studies have questioned the reliability of student evaluations in measuring actual learning; several of these have noted the tendency of many students to reward professors who give them higher grades. Further complicating the debate is a sense some have that the university is endorsing a consumerist approach to higher education. The chancellor of the A&M system, Michael D. McKinney, told the Bryan-College Station Eagle: “This is customer satisfaction…. It has to do with students having the opportunity to recognize good teachers and reward them with some money.”

That comment didn’t go over well with many professors who believe that their job responsibilities include — at least sometimes — tough grading, or challenging student ideas or generally putting learning before student happiness.

Indeed, it’s arguable that student happiness is precisely not the goal of quality professors.  Even the author of the one study that shows such evaluations are useful issues substantial caveats.

[Lawrence M. ] Aleamoni said that even if his research suggests that some student evaluations — designed in ways that differ from the Texas A&M approach — can be reliable, he has always stressed that these evaluations should never be the sole basis for a decision about the quality of someone’s teaching. “Students are only in a position to judge performance in the classroom,” Aleamoni said.

Any real evaluation of teaching, he said, must include peer analysis of such issues as, “How well was the course designed? Are the materials current and up to date? Have they set up the right kinds of standards for the students?” And students aren’t in a position to judge these things, he added.

No joke.

The problem, unfortunately, is that the goals of the administration and the professoriate are often at odds.  Increasingly, decision-makers at universities aren’t former profs who have risen through the ranks as department heads and deans but professional “educrats” with degrees in higher ed administration and who have limited or no teaching experience.  Their mission is to make students happy to keep their parents signing the checks every semester.

That said, I’m not unsympathetic to incentivizing good teaching, something that’s particularly hard to do at major research institutions where publishing and grant seeking are the main emphases.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, … said it makes much more sense to design rewards that look at the long term and that feature a variety of measures, not just student reviews. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches, has awards for teaching in which student evaluations are considered but only over the long term, and only with the recommendation of a department chair, who would not put forth a nominee known for giving everyone A’s, or hold back on nominating a tough grader. Further, the award requires evidence such as work as a mentor, developing new courses and playing a leadership role on curricular matters.

That sounds like a lot more work than running student evals through a scanner, however, and it’s more likely to result in messy arguments.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad, I suspect, depends on whether you think that teaching is a profession or retail sales.

    If you think that teaching is retail sales, this is exactly the right thing to do. If you think it’s a profession, it’s horrifying.

  2. Sadly, along the lines of what Dave notes, there are plenty of administrators who view their job as consisting of “customer service” (and they actually use those words). They also often speak in terms of students as “consumers.”

  3. Michael says:

    If the goal is really to reward teachers for being good at teaching, they need to measure the quality of their product: the knowledge retained by their students.

    Here’s my idea: At the start of every semester, a teacher gives his students an exam that will test their knowledge on topics they should have learned in a previous class. You can then compile all kinds of statistics about a previous teacher’s performance, like how well their former students did on the test, how closely the grades they gave matched the grades students got on the exam (a “C” student from last semester should still be a “C” student at the beginning of the next), etc. Once you have 3 semesters you can see how much a given teacher was able to improve a student (they were a “C” student before, and an “A” student after), and more.

    Then we just get to debate about which is the most descriptive statistic.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Michael: Your method would likely encourage teaching to the test. Which would be fine, I suppose, for introductory classes but not so great for more advanced ones.

  5. Dr. Schuler, I think that is a false dichotomy, not the least because sales is a profession in and of itself. I concur that students are frequently (though not always) the least capable of providing the proper analysis here, but the self-selecting academic bubble doesn’t produce much better results either, unless ideological purity is your highest goal.

    FWIW, Dr. Cary Nelson is a reliable negative indicator on just about everything I’ve ever dealt with where I have read his opionions. But then again, I’m not much of a fan of interpreting everything as seen through a Marxist lens as Dr. Nelson is wont to do.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    College tuition has risen faster than inflation and is increasingly tougher for families and students to afford. Experts question whether or not a college education is actually worth the money for most students. Obviously something is wrong with the product/service provided versus the cost.

    As much as academics would like to elevate themselves the bottom line is undergraduate education is a business. You can be a semester away from graduation, a few dollars short of tuition and find out how business becomes a priority over education. No check, no learning.

    Students may not be the best to give evaluations but other profs aren’t much better. The tweed set doesn’t want to upset the harmony and collegial relationships. Perhaps a joint review by parents and students would be the best solution. He who pays the piper should call the tune.

  7. Michael says:

    Michael: Your method would likely encourage teaching to the test. Which would be fine, I suppose, for introductory classes but not so great for more advanced ones.

    Don’t use a standardized test, let every teacher make their own test of what they expect incoming students to already know. You can use weighting to smooth out the discrepancies you’ll get from different exams being given. You wouldn’t want to base firing decisions on just a single cycle either, you want to see trends not snapshots.

    This can also be instructive to the teacher issuing the exam, as he/she would be able to see if their expectations are continually too high or too low, and they can re-base their starting point on that.

    If you really threw some math majors in there, you can probably start picking out trends where students who did well with teacher “A”, do better with teacher “B” than teacher “C” in the next semester because their teaching methods are similar, and let students pick which one they want based on that feedback. If I did well in teacher A’s class, I pick teacher “B”, if I did poorly maybe I try teacher “C” for something different.

  8. Never a good idea to put too much weight on those evaluations. The number one factor is grades the student receives. And we’re seeing enough grade inflation now.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    sales is a profession in and of itself

    No, it isn’t. Sales is a trade. It is not a profession. That’s a misuse of the term.

  10. I think I understand your point, if you are referring to the formal definition of professional rather than a more colloquial meaning.

  11. tom p says:

    No, it isn’t. Sales is a trade. It is not a profession. That’s a misuse of the term.

    Ok Dave, I have to ask, how do you define the 2? I am a carpenter, and I have yet to meet a carpenter who thinks carpentry is anything other than a trade, but we all consider ourselves professionals…

    Do you see the blurring of the lines?

  12. tom p says:

    on the larger question of professors being beholden to those to whom they are resposible for educating… What do they consider more important: their grades or their actual knowledge?

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    Being a carpenter is a craft.

    Note that I don’t mean to denigrate any particular form of employment by classifying it.

    A profession is a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation. There is also the implication of serving the public good in pursuing a profession. Traditionally, the professions are teaching, the law, medicine, the military, and the clergy and generally speaking they all derive from clerical functions. It used to be required that all members of most professions perform pro bono work. I think that requirement should be re-instated.

    When you’re involved in buying and selling things you’re in trade.

    Making things is a craft. The ancient crafts are carpentry, masonry, etc. The modern crafts include being an electrician, a computer programmer, or even a newspaper reporter.

    Performing or making things that are primarily decorative is following the arts.

    Unskilled work, e.g. shovelling gravel, carrying burdens, etc., is labor.

    I think that a “professional attitude”, by which is generally meant a systematic and conscientious attention to one’s work, is desireable but that doesn’t make what you’re doing a profession, it just makes you good at whatever you do.

    A key difference among these various different forms of work is the sort of fiduciary responsibility involved.

  14. sam says:

    The only kind of teaching I’m personally familiar with is the teaching of philosophy. And I didn’t ever teach the subject as the history of philosophy, although, perforce, there was a lot of that. But my goal was to expose students to philosophical problems and philosophical thinking. I never gave a test–all the work I required consisted of papers on various philosophical issues. I’m not sure you could measure success or failure here in terms of any knowledge acquired. I tried to challenge the students in class to examine their preconceptions, and I could be pretty hard on them. In fact, one my students came up to me after class one day and told me that I taught by the method of intimidation. I was a little taken aback by that (though on reflection, he was right), and he must have seen it, because he said, “Hey, but I like it–it’s human.” (This was at an institution whose primary goal was the teaching of science and technology. Evidently, his classes in those disciplines were pretty dry….) We didn’t have student evaluations in those days; it would’ve been interesting to see what some of my other students thought of my methods.

  15. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    The presidents of A&M haven’t ever been educators. They have always been military men or politicians or both. I did my undergraduate sentence there and I would love to have had the chance to deny a bonus to my useless non-English-speaking professors of engineering.

  16. Drew says:

    Speaking of trade or, depending on how good she turns out to be, “art,” if our Sweet Natalie goes on to become a professor, and is desirous of good reviews………..

  17. tom p says:

    Dave, I apologize, I truly was not trying to put you on the spot, just saying that the lines blur.

    Always, what I do is a craft, sometimes it is an art (and yes, a time or 2 I have built things which could only be imagined on paper), but most times:

    I think that a “professional attitude”, by which is generally meant a systematic and conscientious attention to one’s work, is desireable but that doesn’t make what you’re doing a profession, it just makes you good at whatever you do.

    and yet as you say,

    A key difference among these various different forms of work is the sort of fiduciary responsibility involved.

    And as I have explained to innumerable cubs, we have one job and one job only…. to make the guy who signs our check money. Is that not a fiduciary responsibility?

    Again, the lines blur, and I have had to argue it more than once…

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    Is that not a fiduciary responsibility?

    It certainly is. However, I’d say that a craftsman also has a fiduciary responsibility to make his or her work up to the standards of the craft.

  19. steve s says:

    There’s an old Malcolm Gladwell article that shows how astonishingly superficial student evaluations are. Glimpsing a photo of the instructor for less than a second correlates very well with end-of-semester evaluations. It’s very dismaying.

  20. DL says:

    I recall my best professor ever – who put the class(mostly art students)to sleep(actually)with his monotoned voice. To this day, I understand what he taught (the limitations of fields of knowledge/expertese) and can take the brightest liberal arguments down simply because they fail to understand this stuff. He wasn’t cool or popular – but worth every penny I (not my parents) spent.

  21. Michael says:

    There’s an old Malcolm Gladwell article that shows how astonishingly superficial student evaluations are. Glimpsing a photo of the instructor for less than a second correlates very well with end-of-semester evaluations. It’s very dismaying.

    Or maybe there is some strange correlation between how a professor looks, and how well they teach. Or, more likely, a correlation between how a student feels about a professor’s physical appearance and how well they learn from him.

  22. tom p says:

    It certainly is. However, I’d say that a craftsman also has a fiduciary responsibility to make his or her work up to the standards of the craft.

    Agreed Dave. It is a package deal.