It's not what lecturers do, but how they say it

January 23, 1998

The sister of a faculty member at the University of Washington recently ran a search on his name on the World Wide Web. The first thing that came up was his student ratings - the spot verdicts passed on his teaching by those he taught.

Washington, a three-campus state university with 24,000 undergraduates, mostly in Seattle, has championed the use of student ratings, based on anonymous "evaluation forms" handed out at the end of courses. The decision to post the results on the Internet is not popular.

Their validity is under question. One study found professors can radically improve their standing with students by simply varying voice pitch and using enthusiastic hand gestures.

Other findings confirm the long-held suspicion that the ratings students give their teachers appear directly related to the grades professors hand out.

Born as a radical idea in the 1960s to give students a "voice", ratings became accepted as an effective way to keep tabs on teaching. But they are now used increasingly in decisions on promotion or pay and can precipitate dismissals.

Some professors support them; others have complained. But the new findings have launched a healthy debate on Internet chat sites. "I'm providing new ammunition for criticism of student ratings that's been around for 20 years," said Anthony Greenwald, a University of Washington psychology professor who published the study linking grades to ratings. "It is disturbing."

Professor Greenwald had his interest piqued six years ago when a course, which one year made him a top scorer with his students, put him near the bottom the following year. He suspected the difference was that he had turned tougher with marking and tests. His statistical study confirmed it: all things being equal, students reward lenient treatment.

Neither Professor Greenwald nor Gerald Gilmore, his collaborator on the study published in American Psychologist, said ratings should be dumped.

But Mr Gilmore said some faculty members earned a reputation as easy graders, and he suggested in some cases "a silent conspiracy between faculty and students: if you grade me high, I'll grade you high".

At Cornell University, research probed a different question. After just three sessions with a media consultant, professors who improved their presentation style but stuck to exactly the same course bumped their ratings from "average" to "good".

Some 50 per cent of US universities already give some access to ratings results, said Kimberly Montanaro, a student leader at the University of Arizona who helped persuade her own college to publish the results.

At the University of California at San Diego, professors and their courses are rated in a book, complete with the comments, which is sold for $2.50.

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