Thursday, February 18, 2016


Getting What You Pay For

Trident Technical College factors faculty grading into faculty evaluations.  Commenters to the IHE story predictably -- and rightly -- raised the specter of grade inflation, assuming that instructors would scramble to meet the grade distribution they need to get the raises they want.

A few thoughts.

First, I try not to be terribly dogmatic about too many things.  Good teaching can take many different forms, including some that I would never try myself.  Subject areas that I would imagine to be dull can be made exciting.  I’m even willing to allow the possibility that a Yankees fan could otherwise be a good person.  But I have a deep-seated aversion -- almost a theological objection -- to evaluating faculty based on the grades they give.  It offends me.  

That said, even firmly held dogma sometimes have exceptions.  When there’s evidence that grading is based on illegitimate considerations -- monetary or sexual interest, say -- then the basis for deference is eliminated.  I would think that most fair-minded people wouldn’t have a problem with those exceptions.

The trickier case is when the grading is so wildly out of keeping with accepted norms that it looks abusive.  This is the professor whose bell curve centers on a “D,” time after time.  That professor may be basing the grades entirely on academic considerations, but applying standards so idiosyncratically as to call the integrity of the course into question.  Cases like those pit ethical standards against each other: faculty academic judgments should be given deep deference, but students shouldn’t be punished for getting Professor Beelzebub, either.  It’s fair to expect some reasonable consistency across sections of the same course.  

At its core, though, the issue is much easier to solve than is often assumed.  

In high-enrollment classes, over time, sample sizes get big enough that random variations in student quality across sections cancel each other out.  “Norming” workshops for faculty are great first steps to ensuring consistency.  I’ve seen English departments do it, though I don’t think it’s unique to them.  Give everyone a few sample papers and have them assign grades; then discuss, as a group, why it got the grades it did.  If someone is applying completely different standards than everyone else -- even if with the best of intentions -- it will come to the surface, and could occasion a really useful departmental conversation about expectations.

But even norming still leaves in place a basic conflict of interest: the same person who is teaching is assigning the grades.  

What if professors traded papers?

To do it well, I could imagine a common assignment across every section of Intro to Stuff.  If the department is big enough, professors could do a group swap along the lines of Secret Santa, so nobody knows who is grading her class.  That should take some awkwardness out of it.  Professors would know that the assignment will be graded by someone else.  Ideally, they’d tell the students that, so the psychological dynamic between professor and student is simplified.  It’s you and me against the judge.  Students would get the relative safety of having at least one assignment graded by someone else, thereby reducing the impact of any one idiosyncratic grader.  And professors who were way out of line with departments would find out before it became an employment issue.  

Alternately, if that’s too cumbersome but a college still insists on evaluating faculty by looking at grading, the conflict of interest could be mitigated by looking at student performance in subsequent courses in the discipline.  If everyone who took Prof. X  for Pre-Calc failed Calc, but everyone else’s students passed Calc at high rates, well, the question seems reasonable.  

Trident is basing evaluations on an uncorrected conflict of interest.  The absolute best result it can hope for is harmlessness.  If you insist on using grades to evaluate faculty -- a huge “if,” with the above exceptions -- you can at least do it right.  This isn’t right.

One of the bigger challenges is outside those high-enrollment, foundational courses. Let's say there's one professor who teaches the only section per year of a purely elective course, and routinely gives A's to most or all of that class. Maybe the instructor is an easy grader who gives out A's like candy. But it's also possible that the instructor really is just that good at supporting and motivating students, and/or is, for whatever reason, attracting a higher caliber of student. How do you tell?
Matt’s discussion of the problems involved when college and university administrations factor in course grading into the performance evaluations of their faculty reminded me of something that happened to me back when I was teaching an evening physics class at Research Intensive Technological Institute. I had been denied tenure at that school, and had gone off to work at Large Telecommunications Corporation, but I was able to get a part time gig teaching an evening freshman physics class at that school.

The class met only once a week, and lasted for three hours. By the time that the class was over, I probably looked and felt like something the cat dragged in. But I felt as if I was doing a pretty good job overall, since my class had a lot of students, I did lots of in-class physics demonstrations, and I got good course reviews. But one evening the assistant dean showed up in my class, claiming that my grades were too high, that they were higher than the grades that my students had obtained in their other classes. Furthermore, he hung around while I was giving an exam.

But my exams were identical to the ones that I had given back when I was previously teaching the day section of the course when I was on the full-time tenure track, and I didn’t grade my evening class any differently. I sort of imagined that if my grades were really any higher, this must have been due to the fact of my superior teaching skills and my ability to inspire students to greater effort. In retrospect, I should have probably thrown that assistant dean out of my classroom.

But he got his revenge—I got no more evening teaching gigs at that school.

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