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Mutual decline: the failings of student evaluations

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 3 December 2018

It’s that time of the year.  Student evaluations are being gathered by the data crunchers.  Participation rates are being noted.  Attitudes and responses are mapped.  The vulnerable, insecure instructor, fearing an execution squad via email, looks apprehensively at comments in the attached folder that will, in all likelihood, devastate rather than reward –  “Too much teaching matter”; “Too heavy in content”; “Too many books.” 

Then come the other comments from those who seem challenged rather than worn down; excited rather than dulled.  These are few and far between: the modern student is estranged from instructor and teaching.  Not a brave new world, this, but an ignorant, cowardly one.

The student evaluation, ostensibly designed to gather opinions of students about a taught course, is a surprisingly old device.  Some specialists in the field of education, rather bravely, identify instances of this in Antioch during the time of Socrates and during the medieval period. But it took modern mass education to transform the exercise into a feast of administrative joy.


As Beatrice Tucker explains in Higher Education (Sep, 2014),

….. the establishment of external quality assurance bodies, particularly in the UK and in Australia, along with  the ever-increasing requirement for quality assurance and public accountability has seen a shift in the use of evaluation systems including their use for performance funding, evidencing promotions and teaching awards.

Student evaluations, the non-teaching bureaucrat’s response to teaching and learning, create a mutually complicit distortion.  A false economy of expectations is generated even as they degrade the institution of learning, which should not be confused with the learning institution.

Institutions actually have no interest in teaching as such, but merely in happy customers.  It turns the student into a commodity and paying consumer, students into units of measurement rather than sentient beings interested in learning.  The instructor, given the impression that these things matter, adjusts method, approach and content. Decline is assured.

Both instructor and pupil are left with an impression by the vast, bloated bureaucracies of universities that such evaluation forms are indispensable in tailoring appropriate courses for student needs.  But universities remain backward in this regard, having limited tools in educational analytics and text mining.  Student comments, in other words, are hard to summarise in a meaningful way.

This leads to something of a paradox. In this illusory world, corruption proves inevitable. Impressions are everything, and in the evaluation process, the instructor and student have an uncomfortable face off.  The student must be satisfied that the product delivered is up to snuff. The instructor, desperate to stay in the good books of brute management and brown nose the appropriate promotion committees, puts on a good show of pampering and coddling.  Appropriate behaviour, not talent, is the order of the day.



The most pernicious element of this outcome is, by far, grade inflation.  “Students,” asserts Nancy Bunge in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “give better evaluations to people who grade them more generously.”  Absurd spectacles are thereby generated, including twin tower sets of academic performances that eschew anything to do with failure since students as consumers cannot be permitted to fail; everybody finds themselves in the distinction or high distinction band, a statistical improbability. Be wary, go the ingratiating types at course evaluation committees, of “bell curves” – they apparently do not exist as an accurate reflection of a student’s skill set.

The result is a mutually enforcing process of mediocrity and decline.  The instructor tries to please, and in so doing, insists that the student does less.  Students feel more estranged and engage less.  Participation rates fall.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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