Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Professors With Boundaries

Of course I have heard (a lot) about that wondrous website, ratemyprofessors.com, but I have not been tempted to examine its contents. I think I looked at it briefly about 10 years ago when it first came into existence, but I didn't find it particularly interesting or illuminating, and did not return.

I looked at it recently, however, because I was semi-horrified to see a link appear on Facebook to the ratemyprofessors.com page of one of my colleague-friends. A student who is a "friend" of my colleague-friend had posted the link so that it showed up in the FB feeds of all the colleague-friend's friends. The student had done this to show his professor-friend how great the ratings were for a recent class my colleague taught, so the link was posted out of admiration and affection.

Even so, would I want a link to my evaluations on ratemyprofessors to appear on FB? Unlike my colleague-friend, I no longer friend (on FB) my undergraduate students, so this is unlikely to happen to me, but still I wondered: Would I want my (real) friends to see my teaching evaluations? Of course anyone can look these up at anytime, but I doubt most people would, unless a handy link appeared in their FB feed one day.

So I looked. My evaluations are quite nice; I need not lie awake at night in fear that a link will be posted on Facebook. The only surprise was how few there are, despite the large number of students I have taught in recent years. From the frequency with which ratemyprofessors.com is mentioned in articles and conversation, I thought that there would be more evaluations for someone who has taught as many students as I have.

I'm not sure what this means, but I have an unoriginal hypothesis, developed when I looked at the ratings for a colleague who had recently lamented the sorry state of his ratemyprofessor evaluations.

This colleague is an excellent teacher. The last time he taught a big intro class, the students clapped at the end of his last lecture. He got very positive (official) teaching evaluations. Nearly 100% of the students would take a class from him again. Students who hadn't expected to like the course instead found it interesting. The students loved him and were very happy with the class. Not one of them went to ratemyprofessors.com and wrote about this.

A few years ago, however, this same colleague was asked to team-teach the same course with a younger professor who was struggling with teaching. The course had some rough spots related to the times when the struggling professor was teaching, but my colleague worked hard to keep the course on track and to make it interesting (in terms of content) and fair (in terms of grades). The course was not a disaster, but it was not great. Quite a few students were inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com and rant in a rather hostile way.

I can understand that students in this course may have had some difficulty separating the teaching abilities of the two different professors. To the students, it was one course, and they blamed both professors for the disorganization of one.

What is too bad is that the students in the later, excellent course were not similarly inspired to broadcast their happiness with their professor's outstanding teaching. If you only look at the evaluations for this professor on ratemyprofessors.com, you would not be tempted to take a course with this professor. That would be too bad, because he is an excellent teacher.

Of course, some professors do get rave reviews on ratemyprofessors.com. I was reading recently about the instructors who have the top ratings on this site, so there are some students somewhere who are sufficiently inspired by the excellence of their teachers to provide positive ratings.

At some universities, websites such as this may be the only way that students can get information (however flawed) about a particular professor. At other universities, the official teaching evaluations are available to students. I wonder if there is a difference in ratemyprofessors.com participation at different universities as a function of whether official teaching evaluations are available or not.

There are pros and cons of having official teaching evaluations made available to students, but at least these evaluations are a bit more comprehensive in terms of who participates. Or at least they used to be, back when evaluations were mostly done on paper in class, thereby capturing all those who weren't skipping class on the day of the evaluations. Now that many evaluations are done online, participation levels have dropped. Now that students can do evaluations anytime, anywhere, many don't.

The fear is that only those students who are unhappy -- perhaps the same ones who would be inspired to go to ratemyprofessors.com to share their complaints -- will now dominate the official (online) evaluations.

I personally have not experienced a downturn in evaluations, in part because I make a concerted effort to get students to do the online evaluations. I repeatedly remind the students (in class and by e-mail) about the evaluations, I request specific information in the evaluations, I explain why the evaluations are useful, and I share the %completion number with the class, showing the number increasing day by day. I typically end up with 80-100% participation, depending on class size (100% for small classes, closer to 80% for larger classes).

With these numbers, I can get a reasonably balanced view of how a course went, to the extent that one can get that sort of information from teaching evaluations.

It seems that we are all supposed to want to share everything about our lives with all our friends, but I guess I'm not quite on board with that yet. I am happy to share all sorts of information with my friends, but, however (mostly) positive my teaching evaluations are, I'd still rather not see a link to them appear one day on Facebook, wedged in between one friend's many graphic veterinary woes (TMI for dogs) and another's daily note to Jesus.

My evaluations might make more interesting reading for my friends than how I felt about my flight delays this spring owing to Icelandic volcanic ash (there are worse reasons for flight delays) or whether I liked the most recent books I read (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, and yes, in fact, I loved it; also The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte.. both excellent books), but, if I have a choice in this particular case (and I may not), I'd still rather not share this aspect of my professional life with anyone other than my department chair and a few hundred students.


Kevin said...

I've only had a dozen comments on ratemyprofessor, only one in the past 5 years. It is, of course, the most negative students who use the site, so the ratings there are of no use to me as feedback and not of much use to students either.

AnonEngineeringProf said...

Your hypotheses make sense to me.

My personal experience is consistent with your hypothesis that response rate on ratemyprofessors.com is lower if the university administers its own course ratings. I've probably had a total of 800-1000 students in my undergraduate courses over the past five years or so. I have very few ratings on ratemyprofessors.com. My university administers its own survey of the students, given them a chance to rate each class, and the ratings are posted online on a web site.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Reason number eleventen fuckjillion and twelve why facebook is the stupidest fucking thing on the Internet, and why I will never in a million motherfucking years spend my time dicking around on it.


Anonymous said...

As a new Assistant Professor, I have been frustrated by the move to online-only evaluations. In spite of repeatedly requesting that my students complete them, friendly cajoling, specific explanations of what information would be useful and why, etc., my response rate has hovered around 33% (for classes ranging from intro to senior and 40-250 students). Not only is this information not terribly helpful for improving my teaching, but I also worry about how it will affect performance review (I also seem to get many comments/ evaluations from those who have a bone to pick - in spite of getting multiple emails or in person comments from students who really enjoyed the class - but didn't bother to complete the evaluation). Have been debating what to do about it, as my department officially voted to use only online evaluations before I arrived - and I am currently the only person without tenure. Am wondering how others are dealing with these online evaluations (individually and institutionally)? Re facebook - ugh.

Anonymous said...

Students posting to ratemyprofessors.com follows the pattern of voluntary consumer feedback: few make the effort to offer feedback and up to 80% of those who do, complain. For those who offer feedback it is usually because their experience didn't match their expectations, either positively or negatively. So already we're talking about a small pool of people. And out of this small group, if their experience was positive even fewer respond.

FrauTech said...

I only started going to ratemyprofessors.com very recently, when it's soon to be too late for me. I usually don't get to choose or change my schedule based on the professor so it's hardly worth reading at all. But it's been pretty accurate for some of the *worst* professors I've had. I thought it was too nice on some previous professors I had who were terrible lecturers/teachers but maybe nice people so students felt bad about being too negative (I know that's hard to believe, but it's true!) Also while I was browsing I stopped by the pages of some of my favorites and saw they got a lot of negatives (this tends to happen if the professor teaches a department class that is on a non-department topic, or a class that is just extremely difficult and time consuming) and added in positive reviews for all the classes I had with my favorite professors.

I know that a professor is a human being and it's hard not to be hurt or offended when there's an overwhelming bit of negativity on there. But sometimes the general trend of student comments is very accurate and maybe your friend had a genuine reason to be hurt and wonder why he didn't get positive reviews when he did well, but so often it seems like the fully-tenured, 60 or 70-something professors are way too complacent about their teaching abilities. They don't care and don't consider it a priority to be at least passingly polite to a student who is doing the same. I know that's a broad generalization but you wouldn't keep paying for a service if someone wasn't doing their job and then on top of that was rude/mean when it suited them. I am pro-tenure but I wish there was a better way to hold these professors accountable, even if that meant reducing their teaching load just to spare the students.

Tiger Mom PhD said...

As a student, I try to fill out course evaluations whether I liked the class or not. Sometimes I have more to say when I thought the class/professor was a disaster, but if I thought the class/professor was great I say that as well.

I don't think students need to see evaluations of professors. I have found from experience that word of mouth seems to be fine (although one bad evaluation via word of mouth can hurt a professors credibility - I touched on this in a post I just wrote). In our program most students don't have a choice but to take X class from X professor unless they have all the time in the world. It really only affects the seminar courses and "extra" courses that students get to choose.

I just looked up some professors that I thought were great on "ratemyprofessors" and they only got mediocre ratings. I looked up some not so great professors and they weren't even listed. Not sure what that means.

John Vidale said...

A commercial site such as ratemyprofs has drawbacks, but the students deserve to see evaluations, and often there is nothing else available.

When I was an undergrad, a guide with class ratings was very helpful in picking elective courses. UCLA, when I taught there, had an excellent semi-offical site, despite faculty whining. My current U has the most useless ratings web page I've even seen - I can barely fine my own class from the previous quarter - I'm sure it is intentionally obscure, and further the web link requires login and is not posted anywhere obvious. I only found it by its mention in a teaching short course I took.

One of my ongoing gripes is that profs are able to suppress distribution of their class evaluations from the students so effectively. The admin also, at both places I've taught, have not allowed tabulation of which teachers give which grades. Grade distributions are shockingly lax for some popular profs, as I've ascertained by pestering our undergrad advisors enough to take a peek some quarters (most of those 500 kids were an unusually high-performing class?!).

Frankly, if the admin and the taxpayers that foot the bill for faculty had any backbone and insight, the evaluations of their well-paid tenured faculty would be on display where anyone could find them.

rallain said...

Is it a good thing that students have access to teaching evaluations?

I think not. The problem is that students are looking at the class and looking for success. 89.6% of the success comes from what the STUDENT does, not from some characteristics of the instructor. When students look at ratemyprofessor.com, they are looking for which instructor to take. Oh, I understand there are some problem instructors you would need to avoid. But for the most part, the instructor doesn't matter (or at least does not matter as much as the student actions).

Anonymous said...

I am one of those who don't really care who or how a course is taught, as I am mostly a self-study type anyway. However, when it comes to grad applications though I took the same attitude I was in real shock. Good thing was I had a rotation period in which I can 'try' out the different profs which was great. If I wasn't able to sites such as ratemyprof would have been one point of call I would advise anyone to just take a brief look at before choosing where to apply to, as you seriously don't want to work in a toxic environment for a good few years of your life! Unless of course there's no other options.

Anonymous said...

I was similarly burned by RMP after my first semester teaching. The whole experience was trial-by-fire. I went from a prestigious large u to an open-to-all state school, didn't know how to adjust my expectations, and was teaching three sections for a total of 700 students. It was a nightmare. I have absolutely no desire to go back to see what RMP holds for me since I've taught more successfully at 3 other schools. Thankfully, it did not appear to affect my ability to find good jobs.

John Vidale said...

I see a pervasive theme here that faculty, despite the obvious conflict of interest in being able to mask their own shortcomings and short cuts, control the methods for their own evaluations.

Most faculty think they are the right people to chose how their teaching should be evaluated and who sees the results, and that is mainly by their friends sitting in at most once a year and writing non-anonymous reviews that few read.

Imagine if this was how the students were graded, as well.

Anonymous said...

I think it is hilarious how many faculty are described on RMP as "the worst professor ever!!!11!1!11"

Ratemyprofessors.com ... where all the students are above average and all the faculty are below average.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't think faculty necessarily want to "control" the method of their own evaluation, but there are flaws in the system of student evaluation of teaching at some (many?) universities. I think some faculty object to some aspects of the system, not the entire concept. For example, I have written before about some questions I particularly loathe on the evaluations, like one about whether the course met the student's expectations. What does a score for that question even mean? You could get the same score if a student thought a course would be good and wasn't, and for a course that a student thought would be bad and wasn't. And then there are questions about whether there was a syllabus etc. Those are facts, not opinions. And so on. Objecting to how the system is implemented is not equivalent to objecting to the system as a whole.

Anonymous said...

There have been several studies showing consistent biases in student evaluations, by age, sex, race, and rank of the instructor, by the size of the class, by class format, perceived class difficulty, etc. It boggles my mind that we continue to put such weight into them. Coming up for tenure and desperate for some good evaluations? Give out a lot of A's. Of course the exceptionally motivated students will feel ripped off, but they truly are the exceptions.

I don't think there is any good way to evaluate teaching, short of measuring performance on some kind of standardized test. Evaluations from fellow faculty can also be problematic. I've seen horrible instructors (with limited grasp of their subject matter) given glowing evaluations by their buddies. And I've seen senior faculty shred the teaching of junior faculty, presumably just to haze them. Some more.

Anonymous said...

As a current undergraduate I completely disagree with the posters who insist that the professor does not matter (who makes the tests? who makes the sometimes random grading scale? Who assigns work that we never reviewed?) The professor completely determines how much enjoyment and therefore knowledge that I take out of a course. Yea, I could learn a subject by myself, but then the point of an undergraduate degree is called into question.

Competent students will take the comments from ratemyprofessor.com with a grain of salt. It's nice because it allows people to comment about what they didn't (or did) like about the class (such as random assignments, random grading, random testing of materials not discussed) which numerical teacher evaluations do not capture.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to point out that those of us who have grown up in the internet age with facebook, twitter, rate my professor, yelp etc have a basic understanding of the sampling bias of self-reported reviews. We don't go to these sites to find the "best" restaurant, teacher, or class but rather to avoid the worst.

Alex said...

A colleague of mine has spent a lot of time looking at student evaluation forms and the literature on them. She tells me that there are good forms that have been shown to yield plenty of useful information on teaching, if the results are properly interpreted and compared with the right comparison group. She also tells me that there are plenty of mediocre forms out there, which may be useful to the extent that they identify the consistently good, the consistently bad, and the middle, but don't yield much useful detail. For instance, at my school the best score is 1 and the worst is 5, and junior faculty doing their annual self-assessments are supposed to be deeply reflective on their scores. So, if I get 2.1 for "clarity and organization of lecture" and 1.6 for "overall rating of instructor" except this one time where I get 2.2 for the clarity and organization and 1.5 for overall rating, I should reflect on what this says about whatever unusual things I tried that quarter. Never mind whether these differences have any real significance.

Anonymous said...

my evals on ratemyprofessor are very low. My paper evals are very good. Clearly, no point in even looking it up.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 12:44, many students use sites like ratemyprof not to find the "best" teacher but to find the "easiest" teacher. i.e. The person who'll give them the highest mark despite teaching them the least.

I stopped reading my ratemyprof evaluations after running across one that threatened me with violence. I don't need to read that sort of garbage - especially when my university-run evaluations are usually glowing (and get twenty times higher response rate).

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate, I've found ratemyprofessors reasonably helpful. It's not perfect, but I can usually get a general idea about what to expect. Many professors end up with a lot of negative reviews, but often for different reasons. I can work with 'obsessed with the material, assigns too much homework, strange sense of humor' much more easily than I can with a professor who 'grades down if you disagree, and is really disorganized'. In retrospect, using ratemyprofessors would have allowed me to avoid a professor who played national geographic videos on mute instead of lecturing, a teaching assistant who was visibly terrified of his students, and a prof who blatantly favored students who were pre-gradschool over students who were pre-health. I've liked many professors with mediocre reviews, but most of the exceptional professors had almost uniformly positive reviews.

Anonymous said...

I think the Rate my professors site is accurate about the really weird personalities of some professors - e.g., if they yell or shout at students, or if they have a massive ego. I think it is inaccurate about quality of teaching. I got an official paper evaluation for a 4th year undergrad course I taught, where the students were very specific and praised my notes. I think I liked that better than the positive comments about me on this website.

Anonymous said...

I think it's very true that in general only disgruntled people bother to take the time to go online to write reviews. It's not just ratemyprofessors.com, it's with any other consumer-oriented business.

Chris said...

This comment is only tangentially related, but I suspect you will have an opinion, or at least be interested in the opinions of others. The Dean of the College of Science at my university recently removed a tenured professor and distinguished researcher from their duties as instructor of an introductory class, partly because 75% of the students had failing grades at midterm, and the professor in question had no intention of adjusting the grades. The professor has demanded an apology from the university. No other administrative action is planned, at least as far as anyone has said publicly. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

One comment on universities that publish student evaluations- this is often done w/o any kind of filtering. Theoretically, that is a good thing, but sometimes not. In my time as a grad student I TA'd for a horrible prof. A year later, I was told that in HIS evals, one of the students referred to me by name and called me a bitch. That was on the university website for a year before I knew and therefore asked for it to be edited (never mind the inappropriateness towards me, it had no bearing on the evaluation of him). That same TA experience resulted in me being selected by the undergraduates as TA of the year... proving that even for a job well done, there will always be some unhappy students. I dread the day I start getting rated on that dumbass website.

John Vidale said...

I am bemused that some posters would rather leave students completely in the dark about the quality of their instruction than expose them to generally honest opinions sprinkled with a few unfair or tactless remarks.

I daily sift through noisy, confusing, and sometimes misleading data for science. I suspect the students are also good detectives, and are better equipped to glean the substance and properly interpret the spiteful reviews than the thin-skinned subjects of the insults themselves.

Perhaps we are patronizing the students by suggesting they are neophytes at negotiating webspeak.

John Vidale said...

re Chris's high-handed distributor of Fs:

Tough situation. Clearly the prof has no empathy for students, and perhaps little teaching skill. The apology demand underlines his arrogance and lack of perspective.

He deserves to be removed from teaching, but likely would consider it a relief rather than punishment, and his relief would just increase everyone else's load.

If he were not a top researcher, it might be time to move him to a basement closet to encourage retirement.

Anonymous said...

@Chris: what about if instead of the university removing him from teaching that class (since as someone already pointed out, that may be more rewarding than punishment to him), instead they cut his pay or make him serve on an extra committee or something. I bet THAT will motivate him to change his teaching!!

Anonymous said...

For the anon poster at 11:30 I posted at 10:03. I never said that the professors didn't matter. Of course they did, they help focus a student's attention in their studies. By taking courses, you are guided through a thinking process and thereby avoids the traps of inconsistencies as would have happened if you studied outside a teaching environment.

However, my point was not that. As a recent graduate I can tell you that who and how a prof taught a class are not everything. I am not a conventional student as my tests never show how good I actually am. Despite the best of teachers, for many of whom I would be more that gladly post raving reviews on sites such as ratemyprof if it was needed, I still only managed to scrape a good enough score to go into grad school. However, amongst them there were really bad profs whom I loathed having taken classes from but in the end it was the materials that these profs had taught which I ended up using the most.

So, no matter who or how a course is taught you will always end up learning something. It is more of a case of filtering out the negatives and focusing on the positive (ie the information!).

As I was taught in a philosophy class...always focus on the argument (which professors are ultimately doing) and not on the person doing the arguing (or persuading).

Niket said...

John V: You have no effing clue what you are talking about. Please educate yourself first before shooting off.

First, the person in question, who was removed from teaching the class is a she, not a he. Second, she is regarded as a good teacher (know this from a couple of my friends from that Univ). Third, the student performance improved drastically in the second exam. And finally, I think her reason for seeking apology was not that she was removed, but because she was not even given an opportunity to explain; just relieved from teaching responsibilities.

A prof of mine in grad school (Georgia Tech) gave me one advice: treat all student comments seriously. That does not mean you have to agree with them. He gave an example of "are we there yet": the toddler in backseat is just trying to tell you that she is bored.

I usually do an (anonymous) mid-term course evaluation[*]. These evaluations have been extremely helpful. One student said that he was performing poorly and the course sucked because he came to learn chemical engineering and all he got was math (course titled "Process Simulation" is going to be math heavy). I was surprised because I had taken pains to solve actual problems from my research (simplified versions that we use for benchmarking).

I realized what he really wanted to say was that he was struggling with the mathematical parts of the course. I tried to remedy this by taking three tutorial sessions the computer lab. I don't know if these sessions helped... but it was worth a try.

Although this is in India, which is culturally very different from US, the same observation as my prof seems to hold true.

[*] Our evaluation system sucks. Last semester, I got evaluation of 0.91 out of 1.0 (1=best; 0=worst) and I was at 37th percentile. Teachers who grade easy get very high evaluations.

Anonymous said...

I want to know where all the faculty who are saying "Most students use ratemyprofessor to find the easiest profs, not the best" are getting that notion from. Or at least what percentage you mean by "most." I used it as an undergrad to make sure I was getting a prof/class that wouldn't waste my time/money (by teaching me essentially nothing or making me teach myself or making me do little to no actual work/learning) and also wasn't really bad in other ways (extremely confusing, gave grades that seemed completely arbitrary and refused to clarify them, etc).

I don't think this is an uncommon use for the website among undergrads who actually give a shit (which, yep, they exist). I also think that Anonymous 12:04 is right on with saying that most people born after ~1985, who have essentially grown up with Internet media/popular rating sites/etc (or at least had them as part of their college experience) automatically understand the sampling bias. It's pretty obvious which reviewers are just lazy and pissed off that they didn't get an easy A.

One final but VERY important point I'd like to make is that I (and I'm pretty sure most of my friends) used ratemyprof as ONE in a set of tools in figuring out which profs to take (the other basically just being word of mouth, mostly from friends but occasionally from academic advisers, who never badmouthed other profs but would at least tell me which ones were really GOOD). In that context, and taken with a grain of salt, it can be extremely helpful.

Sorry if this is long but it's driving me nuts to see stuff on here like to me sounds like "undergrads are dumb and lazy, I know what I'm doing, all undergrad opinions are worthless and unfounded, blah blah blah." I believe that teaching is hard! I even think organizing and teaching LABS is hard--I'm sure designing and teaching a whole course is crazy hard! Especially while trying to get a research program up and running! But also remember that not all undergrads suck, and that (at least at many schools) they're paying a SHIT TON of money, so in my opinion they have the RIGHT as consumers to be at least moderately educated (no pun intended) about the product they're getting before they choose it.

John Vidale said...


You have no effing clue what you are talking about. Please educate yourself first before shooting off.

Are you confused, or just incompetent?

Maybe you didn't realize I was responding to the comment by Chris, three up from my post. It introduced an anonymous scenario, without specifying gender nor the details of why an apology was sought. Neither did the comment claim she was a good teacher, nor that performance improved on a second exam.

The post said "partly because" implying there was even more cause present to relieve her from teaching (what does her gender matter, anyway, do you apply different standards to women?).

And it seems highly implausible that she both refused to change the scores AND was not asked to explain them. Perhaps she should have said more than "NO" at the time she was asked to change them.

I may be over-interpreting sparse facts, but I think it is a VERY poor practice to irredeemably fail 3/4s of a large undergraduate class on the midterm to motivate them to work harder. In my department, we certainly would not stand by such mistreatment.

Kevin said...

@JohnV "I am bemused that some posters would rather leave students completely in the dark about the quality of their instruction than expose them to generally honest opinions sprinkled with a few unfair or tactless remarks."

I think you misinterpret the remarks people have been making. The ratemyprofessors web site is a highly biased small sample (I've had one comment there in 5 years), so people do not want it to represent their work. I've not heard much resistance here to publishing evaluations (though there were some calls for moderation, to avoid libel)---the problem is with the method of collecting the evaluations which does not seem to reflect the experience of students as accurately as other methods.

When I was a grad student, the student government printed an instructor evaluation book every year, carefully edited to reflect the range of comments. That book was useful and well done, but it took a lot of labor to produce.
I don't know many universities willing to invest that much time into course evaluation.

John Vidale said...


My experience is nearly universal opposition among faculty to public distribution of evaluations that are sometimes critical. Similar to everyone's aversion to ridicule, except faculty often can throttle the critics by banning or relegating to obscurity the web sites.

Among the posts, my irreproducible polls finds posters concerned about being rated object to ratings 11-0, posters with a student point of view support the ratings 7-1, with several posts not taking a stand or talking about something else. I see no discussion of libel, only fear of unfounded criticism.

I agree a well-edited review book is a much better option, but so would be a well-informed advisor or a guardian angel - we're talking about what is now on the ground.

Anonymous said...

"I want to know where all the faculty who are saying "Most students use ratemyprofessor to find the easiest profs, not the best" are getting that notion from. Or at least what percentage you mean by "most.""

I did not say "most". I said "many". I'd estimate somewhere between 20 and 40% of the class, depending on the year and the subject. I'm well aware that there are good hardworking undergrads too. They're what make my job worthwhile. But the site itself even admits that's a consideration and has students rate how "easy" the prof/course is.

Kevin said...

"I think it is a VERY poor practice to irredeemably fail 3/4s of a large undergraduate class on the midterm to motivate them to work harder."

One of the best classes I took in my freshman year (1971) failed 80% of the class on the first midterm. (I was near the top of the class with a C.) Granted this was honors calculus, not a huge class, but I can say that it was very motivating for both the professor and the students. It was a wake-up call for all concerned that the material that the professor thought was being absorbed was not.

The pedagogy changed for the rest of the quarter and the students worked much harder, several ending up with As (including me).

A big weakness revealed in the midterm was a lack of ability doing proofs---we ended up working out delta-epsilon proofs for all the exercises in the book that were intended to be done as easy limit-theorem proofs. After a couple of weeks of that, the students were much more adept at proofs of all sorts.

So while I agree that having 75% of the students fail a midterm is a problem, the solution is not to simply change the grades, but to try to solve the underlying pedagogic problem (which may be improper prerequisites, poor pedagogy, sick students, or any of a number of other things). The grades should only be changed if the grading was faulty. Passing students who have not learned the material is not the correct solution.

John Vidale said...


Your comments make sense, but I'm not convinced. Two counters - First, in 1971 the average grade was a 2.5, now it is a about a 3.5 (median of 3.6 in my dept, to be precise, I discovered to my shock last month). Failing a midterm with no "adjustments" now guarantees a greatly subpar final grade. I'd guess some empty threats were involved, and empty threats are marginally ineffective even for kindergarten. Second, if 3/4 of an intro class failed, to me the teacher fails. This isn't the first week of the quarter, it's the middle of the term.

Kevin said...

"First, in 1971 the average grade was a 2.5, now it is a about a 3.5 (median of 3.6 in my dept, to be precise, I discovered to my shock last month)."
Not the case in my department. In fact, 1/3 of students fail introductory engineering classes (like programming). Rampant grade inflation is no excuse for demanding that other faculty participate in grade inflation.

"Second, if 3/4 of an intro class failed, to me the teacher fails. This isn't the first week of the quarter, it's the middle of the term."

In the example I gave, 3/4 of the class failed at the midterm. It was a failure of the teaching, but the fix was to change the teaching, not to change the grades. An extra midterm was scheduled later in the quarter and grading policies were adjusted (I believe that the score of the lowest test was dropped, a fairly common grading policy then and now) so that students who did learn the material were not penalized for their initial failure, unless they continued to fail to learn the material.

I'm not claiming that failing 3/4 of a class is a desirable goal! Far from it---it is a red flag that something needs to be done, and quickly. I'm just arguing that changing the grades is not the right solution---that's pretending that the problem (students not learning what they need to learn) doesn't exist, rather than fixing it.

John Vidale said...

Rampant grade inflation is no excuse for demanding that other faculty participate in grade inflation.

Personally, I try to grade in the context of current grading practice at my school for similar courses. That's why I checked last quarter. I'm not intent on rolling back to 1970s curves, nor on failing people who can't do what I can (grading absolutely).

Failing 3/4 of an intro class on the midterm violates current practice at my school in a demented way.

Extra midterm, dropping lowest grade

I'd call these adjustments, and dropping the offending grade the biggest adjustment possible. Those are not in play according to her having no intention of adjusting the grades.

Perhaps someone could link the details of this case so we know more precisely what happened, and the rest of the context of the case.