Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Letting students rate professors can lead to drop in academic standards

On Monday, October 28. 2013, the Wall Street Journal offered an interesting perspective on student rating of teachers, on p. A15, by Lyell Asher, “When students rate teachers, standards drop” with a subtitle, “Why do colleges tie academic careers to winning the approval of teenagers? Something is entirely amiss”, link here
   

The article deals mainly with the college environment, although the same may apply to many schools.
  
When I was in college, I found it pretty easy to gauge what a professor was likely to ask on an examination.  Graduate school was a challenge at first, but I adjusted in the first semester of it.  We actually had hour examinations with some professors, and in mathematics, practically all questions required applying a couple of theorems, maybe in combination, to some “hypothetical” scenario. 
   

That’s pretty much the case in studying for tests in most of the sciences, including physics and chemistry.  The one big exception is medicine, where there is just so much memorization at first.  (Yup, there are gay men in the clubs also in medical school, and they tell me all about it.  The history of HIV has provided plenty of incentive to consider medicine as a career.)  You learn to memorize in organic chemistry.
  
The article suggests that professors have an unhealthy incentive to grade easy and to please students, even to sell the subject matter.  Perhaps.  When I was an assistant math instructor at KU in the 1960s as a graduate student, I got the “remedial” sections.  The fact is, many of the students weren’t college material by the notions of the time, and this was a sensitive issue because of the draft.  And, yes, there was some serious flak, especially in the first semester that I taught (spring 1966). 
  
I did perceive teachers and professors as having a lot of “power” in those days, because there wasn’t a lot of check on them.  Now, the world has indeed changed, as teachers have to be concerned about standard test scores, and many examinations and assignments are departmental and no longer under the control of the teacher. 


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