Grading and Tenure

The Chronicle had a first person piece by Louise “not her real name” Churchill called “Professor Goodgrade.” Basically, Prof. Churchill/Goodgrade has changed her grading policies/criteria so that she’s handing out “A”s left and right. Why? So she will get tenure.

Two examples from the article:

I approached the pile of papers with a new attitude. I was only going to give A’s and B’s, except in extreme cases.

I gave a lot of B’s on papers that should really have received some form of a C. I gave A’s where in the past I would probably have given an A- or even a B+. I felt a little polluted, but I also felt the need to receive better marks myself on those cursed computerized forms. I need these students on my side. I need them to like me.

After I returned that set of papers, the class dynamic didn’t seem to change, as it had in other years when I had handed back a slew of C’s. It even seemed to improve, as if the whole class had breathed a collective sigh of relief. I took pains to apologize, in a humorous, self-deprecating way, for a cranky outburst I let escape on a day of numerous class disruptions. I empathized with their stress during midterms and in the weeks leading up to finals. And I padded their grades. I need to get tenure.

and…

I do worry a bit that if my evaluation scores go up, someone may notice that the number of A’s and B’s I’m giving at semester’s end has also gone up, but I don’t think that will happen. I hear from students and other faculty members that grading standards are quite lax among a significant number of my colleagues, most of whom already have tenure. There are a lot of easy A’s out there. So why do I find it so hard to join in on this A fest?

I’ve lowered my standards. I still teach with the same rigor and enthusiasm and I still enjoy the material, but I don’t hold students as accountable as I used to.

I need to get tenure.

Well, good luck to you, Prof. Churchill/Goodgrade, but I doubt this strategy is going to work.

First off, I think it’s not a good thing that the institution in question here seems to be putting quite a bit of weight on “fill in the bubble” scores. I don’t have that much of a problem that these sorts of student evaluations are a part of the mix, but the main way of scoring teaching for the purposes of tenure? That seems a problem, especially at a school that is supposedly emphasizing teaching.

Second, I personally have not experienced the correspondence between the overall student grades and the overall evaluation. Now, I have noticed that in upper-level/graduate courses I tend to get better evaluations, and I also tend to get better evaluations in classes I’ve taught many times before. But I have had plenty of experiences where I have given relatively poor grades (simply because the students weren’t that good) and I received decent evaluations. And vice-versa. So who knows?

Third, it seems to me that Professor Churchill has some other issues she needs to sort out. I think it’s kind of odd that she mentions being “cranky” several times in this piece, for example.

And along those lines, it seems to me that something that Professor Churchill needs to think about (and this perhaps goes with the crankiness) is that teaching and grading are not some sort of contest between the students and the teacher. I think this is a pretty common mistake for younger teachers; it’s certainly one I made. Thinking back, I can come up with a couple of different occassions where I gave grades to “show them,” so to speak. That wasn’t a good idea.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that Professor Churchill’s strategy is going to work. It seems to me that the way to get good evaluations (besides demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about) is pretty easy: treat your students as you would want to be treated, be polite, professional, consistent, fair, and pleasant. Simple enough.

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4 Responses to Grading and Tenure

  1. Bill H-D says:

    I agree with you, Steve. I think that what students appreciate and respect is when you hold them to a high standard, but set them up to succeed. Both.

    If you expect them to fail or think that they are somehow less capable or less engaged than they really are, they will sniff you out and loathe you for it.

    If you grade them down for things that appeared nowhere in your discussion of criteria except your final comment on a paper, they will resent you (and rightly so).

    If, on the other hand, you expect great things, are clear about what that means, and give them the time and resources to learn to produce them – they will appreciate it whether they achieve their goals or not. Most of the time, anyway.

  2. Clancy says:

    “First off, I think it’s not a good thing that the institution in question here seems to be putting quite a bit of weight on “fill in the bubbleâ€� scores. I don’t have that much of a problem that these sorts of student evaluations are a part of the mix, but the main way of scoring teaching for the purposes of tenure? That seems a problem, especially at a school that is supposedly emphasizing teaching.”

    Based on my experience asking questions of search committees during interviews this job season, it is very common for tenure/promotion committees at teaching universities to assess faculty members’ teaching solely on the basis of student evaluations. I only say this because I’m getting the sense that you’re skeptical of Churchill’s claim. It’s actually quite plausible.

  3. Steven D. Krause says:

    I guess I am not disputing Churchill’s claim about teaching evaluations, at least not exactly. But I will say that at the two places where I worked, teaching evaluations played a part in the tenure/review process, but playing a bigger part were things like teaching observations, the professor’s syllabus, etc., etc.

    Anyway, I don’t think teaching evaluations by students are useful by themselves because there is absolutely no way any teacher can please all students. I used to joke about this but I think it’s true: I could show up to a class of 24 students with a case of beer every day, and I’d have a lot of students who would be happy with that. But I’d also have a lot of students who would be simply outraged that I would bring beer, some students who would be pretty annoyed that there was only one beer, some students would really want things like “hard lemonade,” etc.

    I think student evaluations can be useful as *part* of the mix. But, IMO, schools that just use bubble test evaluations are making a pretty crude evaluation of their faculty’s abilities to teach.

    And I stand by my original point: being a grade fairy is not going to automatically make your student’s evaluations a whole lot better.

  4. Sam Kleinman says:

    She said “After I returned that set of papers, the class dynamic didn’t seem to change, as it had in other years when I had handed back a slew of C’s. It even seemed to improve, as if the whole class had breathed a collective sigh of relief.”

    that strikes me as a positive effect. While this might not be the case in an intro level case, it strikes me that students, who are more comfortable, and know that they are less likely to get burned for taking academic risks, and exparimenting. Again, it depends on you’re pedagogical goals, but I could be helpful in some situations to make students comfortable (without making them complacent).

    I think that if students know that you “want” the grades to be distributed normally, it can go a long way to take away agency and could have negative effects on student performance or particpation. That’s not an argument for grade inflation, but a big point against the notion that student’s learning and performance can be assesed on a four or five point scale, which in some cases might be effectively 3 points. (12 if you count half steps, 8 if you count half grades but Ds and Fs as the same thing, and so forth.)

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