UO study finds correlation between grade inflation, student course evaluations

A new study done by two University of Oregon students found a correlation between grades and course evaluations: When student grades are higher, so is the professor’s evaluation score.

The finding by students Kenneth Ancell and Emily Wu suggest a possible “social exchange” in which professors make their classes easier in hopes of getting higher evaluation scores, according to the faculty member who supervised the study.

Other studies done on the topic allude to the existence of the social exchange between faculty and students , says UO Senate Vice President Bill Harbaugh.

“Most of the literature supports that argument, which is incredibly destructive because professors are dumbing down their classes for better evaluations,” Harbaugh said.

The results from Ancell and Wu’s study were consistent with those done at other universities, but had some unique qualities.

“One element that we had in our study that others do not always have was the ability to link the SET scores received by an instructor for a given class to the grades received by students enrolled in that specific class in future courses,” Ancell said. “This data allowed us to evaluate the connection between SET scores and future student achievement.”

The results of student teaching evaluations are not taken lightly, they are a factor in determining which professors receive tenure and raises.

Chris Sinclair, a math professor and faculty senate president, said that the social exchange explanation is a cause for concern.

“If this is what the evaluations are being used for, it’s not unreasonable to expect that some people are going to try to game the system,” said Sinclair. “It’s conceivable that to get better evaluations, and therefore better raises, professors give better grades.”

While the argument for the existence of the social exchange is compelling, Harbaugh offers a second hypotheses. He suggests that better professors teach more, and therefore their students learn more and receive better grades. This leads to the professor receiving higher course evaluation scores for teaching effectively.

Given the impacts of the results from course evaluations, the administration is working to amend the system to better gauge student learning and reduce bias against women and faculty members of color by changing the evaluations altogether.

Michael Weisman is a representative from the group CampusLabs. He addressed members of the university about possible alternatives to the current course evaluation system. His organization collects student feedback to improve campus services.

Weisman proposed that instead of focusing course evaluation questions around the instructor, the new method would include questions that are aimed at gauging the amount students learned during the term. Further options to revising course evaluations will be tested over the summer.

Sinclair said that despite the course evaluations being redesigned by the administration, addressing grade inflation is not a top priority.

“We want to put in place a system that is fair to everybody and allows input from students,” Sinclair said. “If the new course evaluations also help with grade inflation, then that’s great too.”

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Michael Tobin

Michael Tobin

Michael is one of the Emerald's associate news editors. In his free time, he enjoys rock climbing and going to house shows. Drop him a tip via email at [email protected]