That would be fine if student evaluations illustrated teaching effectiveness and the areas where professors needed to get better. But they don’t. In fact, some evidence suggests that professors who receive high evaluations are actually worse teachers than their peers.
In a 2010 study at the Air Force Academy, where a standardized curriculum allows for convenient natural experiments, professors who got high marks from students tended to give out higher grades — and their students did worse in subsequent classes. For the more demanding professors, it was the opposite: They generally got lower student evaluations, but their students did better later on.
In other words, professors with lower expectations got rewarded, even though their students didn’t learn as much. The professors who assigned more work taught their students more, but they were punished for doing so.
Specifically, the study found:
Professors rated highly by their students tended to yield better results for students in their own classes, but the same students did worse in subsequent classes. The implication: highly rated professors actually taught students less, on average, than less popular profs.
Meanwhile, professors with higher academic rank, teaching experience and educational experience — what you might call “input measures” for performance — showed the reverse trend. Their students tended to do worse in that professor’s course, but better in subsequent courses. Presumably, they were learning more.
That conclusion invites another: students are, in essence, rewarding professors who award higher grades by giving them high ratings, and punishing professors who attempt to teach material in more depth by rating them poorly.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard that students prefer taking professors that give higher grades and less homework. I wouldn’t know this personally, because like the sadist I am, I took the hardest possible classes from professors at GMU that I knew would make me work hard for the grade, but I would learn so, so much. If you know GMU profs, I voluntarily took Professors Krauss and Lund twice. There were among my lowest grades in law school, but some of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
It’s a shame that students don’t go to school to learn, but are so fixated on the grade. Sure, employers look at the grades to hire someone. But what happens after you get the job? It’s not over. Your intelligence and skills, acquired during law school, will prove yourself as a lawyer, and a human being. And–as I often tell students–after the first or second job, grades matter much, much less.