Excellence by Default
An exhausted alternator took out the truck’s electrical system. I coasted to the side of the road and called AAA. Six hours and $1100 later, I was back on the road.
Please, don’t give me grief for going to the dealership. I do know better. It was the closest service garage. Yes, $1100 is an outrageous price to pay for an alternator and a new battery. But the waiting area had a fireplace, a coffee bar, and a concierge. Well, the coffee bar was really a trio of thermoses. And the concierge was a secretary who relayed customer questions to mechanics. But the fireplace was real. Well, it was a real gas fireplace. So the flames were real.
Two days later, I received the following text message:
Hi! It’s Susan at your local Toyota dealership. If you are not able to rate your service visit as TRULY EXCEPTIONAL, call 877-XXX-XXXX
It took me a minute to understand that unless I called to opt out, my experience would be automatically tallied as a home run in customer satisfaction. My local dealership could report to the manufacturer that I considered their mechanics, their coffee, and their concierge, “truly exceptional.” I stared at the screen of my phone in disbelief. Excellence as default.
Did I care enough to call them? I mean, the service was probably okay as those things go. Pricey, but not calamitous. I suppose I was treated humanely (left alone with my Kindle to read a new biography of T.E. Lawrence). Did I really want to divert additional time from my day to nuance their notions of superiority? Ultimately… nah. Let ’em believe what they want to believe. It’s no skin off my nose.
We’d be wrong to expect a different attitude of students when it comes to course evaluations. Though they might enjoy seeing a difficult professor disciplined, they have little personal interest in improving instruction. They are no less consumers than I was. And what they are buying is an easy A. Not deeper understanding of the subject. Not skills proficiency. Not apprenticeships with master researchers or world-class artists. At least, this is the consensus of a growing library of research:
- Appearances Can be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perception of Learning Without Increasing Actual Learning. Professors with the lowest student evaluation scores in introductory courses produced students who did best in advanced classes.
- Evaluating Methods for Evaluating Instruction. Scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research claim that student evaluations are positively related to current grades but unrelated to learning
- A is for Adjunct: Examining Grade Inflation in Higher Education. Because contract decisions for adjunct instructors are often based exclusively on student evaluations, they are under considerably more pressure than their tenure-track colleagues to keep students happy with inflated grades.
- Best Way for Professors to Get Good Student Evaluations? Be Male. NC State researchers offer a clever blind study in which students are asked to evaluate teachers of an on-line class. Sometimes, they’re told the truth about their professor’s gender. Sometimes, not. In any case, they rate female professors lower.
- The Washington Post cites additional studies which strongly suggest student evaluations are biased against female instructors – particularly as class size increases.
That’s merely a tip-of-the-iceberg sample (and it doesn’t include students’ self-reported mischief). Yet student evaluation remains one of the most influential factors in faculty tenure, promotion, and compensation.
So can’t we just take a page from the Toyota playbook? Sure, let’s give students a chance to opt out. But until they do, we’ll just assume we’re all truly exceptional. And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon…