THE EVALUATIONS PUZZLE. Eric Rasmusen has a lengthy post on the use of student evaluations as determinants of tenure and pay increases. Herewith the guts of his argument:
Why, then do we rely so heavily on student evaluations? It is hard to believe that professors and administrators do not realize how weakly they measure the amount a teacher has taught his students. Even if they did not, if good teaching was the objective, surely we would pay some attention to the syllabi and what kind of tests were given and use objective evaluators-- students or faculty observing single class sessions-- which we do not do in any serious way. Rather, I think that "good teaching" means "contented students" for the people who rely on student evaluations. Student evaluations are indeed a good way to measure this. And it is a reasonable objective. Administrators are trying to sell a product, and if you view the student as a customer rather than as someone to whom you have a moral obligation, you want to design a product that he wants. The student will likely want a course that has a low workload and gives him a pleasant feeling of accomplishment while being described as difficult course on an advanced topic. Professors have incentives similar to administrators-- it is more fun teaching contented students, and while it is quite difficult to know how to make students learn (I know that after 20 years I still don't know when I have succeeed and when I have failed, or even whether I, as opposed to the students' own efforts, make much difference), it is much easier to figure out how to make students pleased.
Where might it lead?
This question will have growing importance. Why, indeed, do we have people with PhD's, or people who have scholarly credentials, teaching at all? If student satisfaction is the key, universities should hire cheaper teachers who know more about presentation than they do about substance. And, indeed, maybe teacher quality is unimportant, and this would work out fine.

The comments section, however, can be useful, although the limitations of the medium come out. Consider a few suggestions from my most recently finished semester.

From a public utilities class offered to upperclassmen and Master's students:

No term paper for non-economics majors.

Sorry, Writing Across the Curriculum is one of the university initiatives I can endorse.

Don't understand how the paper can be worth so much of our grade without giving us any direction. I felt homework questions were open ended.

I felt homework answers were often superficial and scored them accordingly. As the evaluations are anonymous, I don't know whether this is from someone who was genuinely lost or someone looking for an easier ride. Likewise, as the paper was preceded by an outline and a first draft, I don't know whether this was from someone who wanted more direction or from someone who felt overworked. The comment might also be a statement about the lack of prior training in writing in college and in the common schools; for many of these students this was their first, last, and only paper.

Criticism on homework and paper was almost all negative need to employ some positive criticism for areas of improvement. Be more specific of [cq] what you want in final paper.

Again, the anonymity makes style changes a bit difficult ... if this is from someone who wasn't doing the work (we have a few of those) such a person is unlikely to earn many gold stars, on the other hand if this is someone still learning the ropes or of a more sensitive nature there might be some things I can do.

From a required microeconomic theory class for first-year graduate students:

However, I feel as though (whether this is real or imagined on my part) that you take some kind of personal satisfaction from intimidating those who are unsure of their abilities. If this observation seems terribly fallacious or hurtful in anyway, my apologies. An additional suggestion: work on your godfather impression ...

There is a Principle of Comparative Advantage. Marlon Brando does not teach economics. Completion of the argument is left to the reader as an exercise. This is graduate school. It's business, the Academic Ninja chops notwithstanding. Suck it up.

This class uses the wrong book. For expectations to be met for this, class material in [Jehle and Reny's text] does not provide the rigorous intuitive arguments that this professor demands. Homeworks are not only too difficult, grading can be completely discouraging.

The problem of finding a suitable textbook continues to vex me. I'm not sure there is anything intended for graduate students that is sufficiently demanding to equip students to be able to read Econometrica. I get paid to grade assignments, and it would be easy enough for me to design assignments that everyone could master, which would be much easier to score, but that is not what a graduate program does.

I understand we do not need to be "spoon fed" the material and should be able to learn some on our own. However, we are still learning the basics and do not know the tricks or see the connections as quickly as he would like. These skills come with experience and have not had time to be developed.

You'll learn 'em faster if there are consequences for not learning them.

I am still searching for that textbook, and the department is still learning how to incorporate writing throughout its major.

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