Built on Facts

Cash for evaluations?

I hope this doesn’t count as biting the hand that feeds, but hey, dissent is supposed to be the highest form of patriotism or something. From my university:

COLLEGE STATION — The chancellor of the Texas A&M University System wants to give bonuses worth up to $10,000 to some instructors, but so far, many aren’t interested.

“I’ve never had so much trouble giving away a million dollars,” Chancellor Mike McKinney said, laughing.

The voluntary pilot program being done at Texas A&M University along with the campuses in Prairie View and Kingsville will award bonuses from $2,500 to $10,000 to instructors based on end-of-the-semester critiques by students. The first awards go out in February, the Bryan-College Station Eagle reported in its online editions on Sunday.

(Via AP)

I love my university, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Most everything they do I like. This though is kind of goofy. Here’s the problem. Student evaluations are pretty worthless as guides to how good a professor is at teaching. That doesn’t mean they’re useless. They’re often a pretty good guide for how to be a better teacher. The written comments can give you excellent suggestions and things to stop doing or keep doing.

On the other hand, give a student a deserved bad grade and he probably won’t be inclined to give you a good evaluation. Look good and make the class very easy and you’ll probably get fantastic evaluations. I can’t really be bothered to look up the numbers, but I’ve heard – and I find it quite plausible – that in fact there’s a pretty good correlation between an instructors looks and evaluations. Which is good news for me, but not very fair in the grand scheme of things. (Ok, I’m joking) The problem is that there’s ways to try to rig evaluations without actually improving teaching skills. Make assignments easier, give students whatever grade they ask for, don’t assign much homework and make the deadlines flexible, etc. Professors who teach very difficult but vital “weed-out” may as well not bother applying.

But faculty members have voiced concern about the program’s fairness, worried that it relies on a single evaluation method and could become a popularity contest that wouldn’t serve students. Many instructors haven’t signed up to participate; the faculty senate passed a resolution opposing the program.

I’m sure some of this really is poor professors wanting to avoid being shut out, but the point is legitimate nonetheless. Students spend about 60 seconds on evaluations, dashed off at the last minute before class ends. Aside from being comparatively easy to manipulate, the real problem is the money involved.

Ten grand is a lot of money. Ten grand multiplied a few hundred times is real money. It’s money that is scarce these days. A million dollars could hire another endowed professor, buy a tremendous amount of scientific equipment, completely revamp the student lab classes, increase grad student salaries(!), you name it. Spending it on what’s not a whole lot more than a popularity contest seems to be misallocation or resources.

“I don’t think faculty are going to pander to students for a few thousand dollars,” said Traci Carte, an associate professor of management information systems.

McKinney said he’s committed to the program. He got funding to start it from existing sources, but he has asked the Legislature for an additional $12 million.

“If I had to prioritize my entire budget, this would be first,” he said. “If I have to take money out of administration, that’s what I’ll do.”

I suggest a compromise. How about reallocate the cash to something more useful, and use that extra administration cash for something more useful too?

Well, a guy can dream.


  1. #1 Uncle Al
    January 13, 2009

    Conspire with a lecture section. When the prof is left-stage stare at its crotch, right-stage stare into its eyes. Location stats before and after the experiment will violently diverge. (If it is a female or protected minority, frown and smile respectively.)

    Quality assurance in a manufacturing environment is about product not process. Notable exceptions (Post Office, FEMA, Head Start, rights) are objects of ridicule.

  2. #2 Michael F. Martin
    January 13, 2009

    Agreed that student evaluations of professors would be better if not anonymous. Sort of like blog comments that way.

  3. #3 Peter
    January 13, 2009

    In my experience, University instruction in general is poor – the professors are choosen, not for these skills at all, but for their research and published record. At the TA level, entrance into the grad program is all it takes, which does not even touch on ability to be a TA.

    I am all in favour of some sort of evaluation for instructors – few other careers have as little evaluation of what is important to the job as university instructors. But student evaluations should only be a part of that, and even then the questions need to be carefully phrased to avoid popularity being confused with ability to provide value for the tutition paid – it could be like asking customers about a salesman and ignoring net sales dollars, and expenses.

    The first question should be “can you hear and understand the instructor when they speak”

  4. #4 Chris P
    January 13, 2009

    Just be glad that he isn’t wanting you to teach creationism.

    Chris P

  5. #5 gah
    January 13, 2009

    After we pass out the evaluation forms we leave the room to avoid influencing the results. One time as I left a student leaned over to his neighbor and asked “How do you spell asshole?”

  6. #6 Jim Thomerson
    January 15, 2009

    I have looked at many student evaluations; both my own and those of other faculty. Some students will think the prof the greatest, some a total incompetent. This is almost always true. The bulk of students will be somewhere in the middle. The virtue of student evaluations is that one can learn from them and become more effective. I once had a class I did not enjoy. I fell into the habit of arriving a couple of minutes late. I was surprised how this was commented on in student evaluations. I later read that the prof showing up five minutes early and just hanging out would improve class performance. So I started doing that.

    I think the A&M scheme needs to be well thought out or it will not succeed.

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