Why I...recommend fudging the 'happy sheets'

June 7, 2002

The government's explicit mantra was "education, education, education", but some believe history has proved it to be more like "evaluation, evaluation, evaluation".

Teachers and lecturers now face course evaluation. Trainers have long been exposed to the demands of the "happy sheet". Consultants and trainers can be hired and fired on the basis of their happy-sheet results, and they know it.

There is therefore a new industry in improving course evaluation. Indeed it is more sensible and efficient to put effort into improving teaching evaluations than actually improving the teaching. Below are some recommendations and facts from research on this topic: n Be male: students expect females to be more supportive and helpful, and if they are not they get punished.

* Be well organised: start and end on time, have enough hand-outs, check that the overhead projector works. Students get very annoyed with absent-minded professors.

* Be a soft examiner: lenient grading is a powerful correlate of marks for teacher effectiveness. Naturally, the really talented feel hard done by, but there are relatively few of them. Further, you can always defend your generous grades as reflective of your teaching skill - after all, the evaluations support your position.

* Have early evaluations. Don't wait until the end of the course, particularly if you know the students will be tested. The weak ones will blame you for their inadequacies. Catch them early, before they think about any test of what they have learned. They mark you higher if they forget you mark them later.

* Give out your happy sheets personally. Choose your best lecture with the most amusing of all your profundities and anecdotes, then dish out the happy sheets. It helps if this lecture has a bit of emotional slush and pulls on their heart-strings. A happy camper gives generously.

* "Explain" the purpose of the ratings. Be confident, funny, relaxed, positive. Point out that high scores keep your research going; your five small children alive; the whole department in jobs.

* Teach smaller, selective groups. The smaller the group, the more you can charm individuals. They also tend to be more selective and selected. Beware the disaffected and disturbed hiding in big groups.

* Mix and match: go for gimmicks. Use the media; use new technology. Have videos, CD-Roms, celebrity interviews. Show a particular emotionally triggering video on or just before an annual appraisal.

* Establish and fulfil expectations. Don't let students do pre-course evaluations/expectations appraisal. Do it informally: find out the reputation of the course and the teacher and deliver what they expect.

* Model and echo students' beliefs and agendas. Ascertain, promote and adopt their views, even if they are hypocritical, politically correct and utterly vacuous. They like you to be one of them and therefore identify with you.

* Admit talented students only. Dim second-raters have learned to blame the teacher for failure, brighter ones do not.

* Evaluate everyone. In teaching and training, there are always those who exclude themselves from evaluation on bogus grounds. Insist everyone is included. This increases the distribution of the scores, particularly at the lower end, so your score will improve relatively. By insisting on a no-exceptions policy for evaluation, you can take the moral, politically correct position.

The moral is simple. You don't have to be a clever, caring, empathic or dedicated person to get good teacher evaluations, and being bright, setting high standards and refusing to pander to students can be punished by poor evaluations.

Adrian Furnham
Professor of psychology
University of London

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