Slow Learning

A couple of news/opinion items the past week kind of coalesce around a peculiar notion: higher educational institutions are slow learners. This may not be obvious when you learn that the two items are an op-ed about how college isn’t for everyone, and the second about the use of student evaluations of teaching potentially being discriminatory.

Let’s take the last one first. The Boulder Faculty Assembly has now twice prompted the administration to revise how student evaluations are used in determining the teaching ability of professors. These assessments are made by students in the penultimate week of the term; in most cases only a fraction of the class actually completes the evaluation. At greatest issue are two questions on the questionnaire: rating the course, and rating the instructor–the two which are most commonly considered both by students considering which course to take and by promotion and tenure committees considering whether to promote a faculty member. For students, this is one of the few summary pieces of information available to them; for faculty committees though, this is a temptingly quantitative piece of information.

It has been patently obvious for decades (yes, literally decades) that these questionnaire results have little correlation with how much students learned. In fact, these results often grossly correlate with the average grade given in the class. Asking students how good the class was on the cusp of exams determining their grade during the most stressful part of the semester is obviously not going to yield the most detached evaluation of a course.  Toss in the fact that many courses are providing groundwork for future courses–groundwork invisible to most of the students–and that these surveys have any relevance to how well an instructor taught borders on laughable.

Again, this all has been obvious for decades. And yet, still, this is a major component of the evaluation of faculty.

On to part two: college isn’t for everybody.  GG agrees, and has pointed out before that the campus focus on retention is misguided. There are folks who shouldn’t be in college.  This doesn’t mean they are worthless dregs on society, it means their skills and aptitude are better employed in careers not needing the kind of academic training a college education provides. And yet colleges and universities (and indeed American society at large) are busy promoting the idea that you can only get ahead with a college degree. The result, as the op-ed notes, is that vocational training opportunities are ill-funded and poorly supported.

While this seems so deeply embedded in our culture that many would in fact argue that of course better careers accompany a college degree and college education is an undiluted good, this isn’t the perception everywhere.  GG recalls being in New Zealand nearly 20 years ago where college faculty complained that higher education was viewed as a negative–that the real work was done outside offices and that this perception was holding New Zealand back.  GG feels you can make the case that some balance between American homage to the college degree and Kiwi (c. 2000) disdain for the same would make for a fairer society better able to properly employ its human capital.

Arguably for both these cases universities have known the realities for a long time but paid them little mind; most disturbingly, indulging in these fantasies arguably hurts the main reason we have higher education. It is kind of sad that it has taken some evidence that there is a discriminatory tinge to student evaluations to make the faculty decide that maybe these evaluations aren’t so useful. That we’ve spent scores of years perhaps discouraging or even losing really effective faculty because the student evaluations were misguided. And by insisting that college is really for everyone, we’ve degraded significant parts of the educational experience–when your peers really aren’t as capable, you don’t get pushed to excel, you get rewarded to relax. And because colleges are touting the better pay of graduates, pressure builds to become more vo-tech oriented, that preparation has to be geared to a specific place in the workforce.

So it seems the university is itself a slow learner.  And we know in the end the slow learner is left behind…

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2 responses to “Slow Learning”

  1. Paul Braterman says :

    Has there been any research into what kinds of question actually produce useful feedback?

    Disclosure; I am less hostile than you to student evaluations because when I moved from the UK (no evaluations) to the US, the evaluations gave me what was initially very painful information that I badly needed.


    • cjonescu says :

      The resolution itself suggests that more specific questions are fine (“how many hours a week did you work on this class?” “were you respected by the instructor?”) but generic ones are not (“rate this class from 1 to 7”). There is a working group at CU that has some links that might be of interest. .
      It wasn’t so much whether the feedback to the instructor was helpful that was the issue, but the use of the summary numbers as a means of evaluating the instructor. In my experience the student comments from upper division courses are useful, probably because the students are invested in learning the material. Responses at the lower division are more like high school popularity contests and frequently descend into name calling and border on verbal abuse; many faculty will no longer read these comments for that reason.
      At the root is the problem of measuring teaching. Physics actually has a handle on this at the lower levels; they can use a concept inventory and get a pretty good idea how well a course was taught. If the inventory is well vetted and solid, there is little risk of faculty “teaching to the test” as that would in fact be teaching the material well. But other disciplines struggle to make such devices. Earth science is particularly problematic because you are often divining general rules from specific examples and so questions might be about specific cases–if ones you recognize you might know the answer without understanding the process. And student evaluations tell you how much of the presented material they felt they understood–which suffers from students not having an absolute sense of how much they learned combined with ignorance of what they didn’t see presented. So teaching less and showing less produces better evaluations (and a false sense of mastery).


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