It is widely assumed among faculty that students reward easy grades with good evaluations, which then becomes reason to dismiss student evaluations as unreliable. But a meta-analysis of various studies testing this hypothesis found that while some showed a minor correlation between grades and evaluations, those that controlled for confounding variables found no significant correlation (Centra, 2005). In fact, some studies found that students evaluated faculty less favorably for lenient grading.
This finding matches my own experience managing hundreds of faculty, including reviewing their teaching, grading, and evaluations. I haven’t seen any correlation between higher grades and higher evaluation scores. I myself give lower grades than nearly all of the 75 or so faculty that I currently manage, and yet my evaluations are above average. I also know of numerous faculty at other institutions whom students have regarded as laughingstocks because of their easy grading. At the other end of the spectrum, I know of a faculty member reputed among students as being both the hardest grader and the best teacher at his institution.
When I first started teaching, an undergraduate suggested the real path to improved evaluations to me. She was taking a class from a famously popular teacher at the institution, and when I asked her why his courses were such favorites, she immediately noted that he gave extensive feedback on student work. Since then a large body of research has emerged from scholars such as John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) and Grant Wiggins (2012) finding that feedback is one of the keys—if not the key—to improved learning.
Unfortunately, higher education gives almost no attention to providing quality feedback on student work. Like most graduate students, I was taught to grade, not give feedback. I learned to go over a student’s work, mentally subtracting points for errors as I went along, justifying the subtractions with brief margin comments such as “vague.” But a student who sees this thinks to themselves, “It’s not vague to me, so why is it vague to you?” This is not feedback; this is just justifying the grade.
Faculty need to first understand the difference between grades and feedback. A grade is simply a symbolic representation of the student’s performance against some standard. A C does not help the student improve. Feedback is both information about a performance and, ideally, information that helps someone improve their performance. Faculty often assume that they teach through their lectures and measure learning through their assessments. But in reality, much of teaching involves giving feedback on student work.
Feedback can be thought of in two ways: as feeding back and feeding forward. Feeding back means providing information about a past performance, such as when a basketball coach tells a player, “You are standing wrong when defend a player because . . .” The major problem I see with faculty feedback is that it lacks sufficient detail for the student to understand the problem. Telling a student that their work is “vague” is like a coach telling a player their swing is wrong and nothing else. Faculty need to say why it is vague. They might say, “This is vague because you could mean a number of things. You could mean that tariffs increase the cost of goods for the consumer. But you might also mean that . . .” Now the student sees precisely how it is vague.
One problem is that faculty suffer from the so-called expert blind spot. This is the well-documented problem that experts have in communicating to novices because they do not see the world in the way that novices do. The expert has knowledge the novice lacks, and often they speak over the novice’s head because they are tacitly using that knowledge. I see this when faculty tell students that their work lacks “synthesis of ideas.” While the faculty member knows what this means, the student may not. What it means to synthesize ideas needs to be explained. With feedback, the devil is in the details: the more a faculty member can say about the student’s problem, the better.
Whereas feeding back is retrospective, feeding forward provides guidance on how to improve future performance. Here, again, just telling the student to clarify their position is not helpful. They need direction in how to clarify their position. The faculty member might tell the student, “First describe how tariffs work. Explain how the money is collected and where it goes. Then explain how tariffs raise the cost of goods and how raising the cost of a good affects demand. Next . . .” Now the student has a clear roadmap for improving their work.
Many faculty assume that students get discouraged by poor grades, but this is wrong. Rather, students get discouraged by poor grades only when they do not see a path to improvement. Students are not demotivated by video game failures, because they know that there must be a path to success that they can find if they keep trying. Similarly, when I took a canoe paddle carving class, I was not bothered by the instructor telling me that I was sharpening the paddle wrong, because he then showed me the correct way to sharpen it. That is what I wanted from the class. Would you rather pay for canoe paddle carving class where the instructor tells you, “Your paddle looks great, you get an A,” and moves on, or from one who tells you, “Your hand grip is not quite right, let me show you how to fix it?”
Students want faculty to care about their learning, and they liken the teacher who gives an A for shoddy work to the instructor who tells you your paddle is “great” when you know it isn’t. Similarly, when I see instructors give low grades and get poor evaluations, I have invariably found that these instructors also give poor feedback on student work. Low grades and low evaluation scores can both result from poor teaching. The faculty member who was known for being tough and an excellent teacher gave extensive feedback on students’ work and told them to rewrite assignments over and over until they improved their grades.
The secret to better student evaluations and better teaching is better feedback. Focus on providing your students with the feedback they need to improve.
Centra, J. A. (2005, July 9). Will teachers receive higher student evaluations by giving higher grades and less coursework? Retrieved from https://www.ets.org/Media/Products/StudentEval.pdf
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487
Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx