Here’s an interesting piece about teaching quality and evaluation. The most interesting point from my own perspective is this:
For math and science courses, students taking courses from professors with a higher “academic rank, teaching experience, and terminal degree status” tended to perform worse in the “contemporaneous” course but better in the “follow-on” courses, according to the report. This is consistent, the report asserts, with recent findings that students taught by “less academically qualified instructors” may become interested in pursuing further study in particular academic areas because they earn good grades in the initial courses, but then go on to perform poorly in later courses that depend on the knowledge gained from the initial courses.
In humanities, the report found no such link.
Carrell had a few possible explanations for why no such link existed in humanities courses. One is because professors have more “latitude” in how they grade, especially with essays. Another reason could be that later courses in humanities don’t build on earlier classes like science and math do.
One of the major points of the study was its look at the effectiveness of student evaluations. Although the evaluations can accurately predict the performance of the student in the “contemporaneous” course — the course in which the professor teaches the student — they are “very poor” predictors of the performance of a professor’s students in later, follow-up courses. Because many universities use student evaluations as a factor in decisions of promotion and tenure, this “draws into question how one should measure professor quality,” according to the report.
Two points are worth noting here. The first is the tiresome point that better ways are needed to evaluate quality teaching. Duh. The other one, though, is a bit more interesting, and confirms something I had suspected (but which is found in math and science but not in the humanities more generally): there is some correlation between taking courses from successful faculty and doing better in later courses that depend on material from earlier courses. This result doesn’t hold for the humanities more generally, but for mainstream philosophy in research departments, I expect the results would be more like math and science and less like other humanities.
It is also worth noting that success in later coursework is couple with another point: less success in the course in question. To the extent that we know that teaching evaluations correlate well with grades (and even better with expected grades), we have a reason to reward successful professors when their grades and teaching evaluations are below the norm!
OK, the last part was intentionally provocative, but there is a part of it that I’d defend. Suppose you have a highly successful researcher. You have to evaluate his teaching. You visit the classroom (with permission!). You check quality of syllabi. You check grading techniques, developing an understanding of the standards used. You attend to availability of office hours, and whether the imposition of grading standards is done in a constructive way. After all that, you find out that grades assigned are lower than average and teaching evaluations suffer a bit. At this point, I’m inclined to do more than discount the evaluations. I’m inclined to apply an inverse rule here.
Rebuttals welcome, of course (as are refutations… and, not being a journalist, I know the difference between rebutting and refuting…).