Improving Student Evaluations
By Bryan Caplan
When professors complain about grade inflation, they rarely mention that their students are the easiest graders of all. The main way that colleges evaluate professors’ teaching is with student evaluations. Students typically rate how good their professor was on a 1-5 scale. In practice, most students give most professors the maximum score of 5 (“excellent”). This means that most of the variation in professors’ evaluations comes from variation in a small number of disgruntled students.
For example, the typical professor at a typical school averages 4.4 out of 5. In a class with 20 students, if one student switches from a 5 to 1, that reduces your average by .2. All it takes to change a relatively good evaluation to a rather bad one is three hard-to-please students.
This gives professors perverse incentives to pander to the squeekiest wheels in the classroom, instead of enhancing students’ average experience. A professor who wanted to maximize his evaluations would always give in to every student who came to his office to complain. They’re the ones who make or break you come evaluation time.
I have a simple solution: stretch the scale upwards. If students call 60% of their professors “excellent,” we need to add stronger adjectives to the list of responses. I suggest we add 6=”best professor I’ve had this year” and 7=”best professor I’ve ever had.”
I still suspect students would overuse these options – during their four years, a student might give out ten 6’s and five 7’s, instead of four 6’s and one 7 like they should. But my reform would publicly distinguish teachers who do their job and appease complainers from professors who change their students’ lives but refuse to coddle them.