Jun 17, 2011

Academic statisticians and probabilists

Dimitris Politis writes: Many IMS members are educators, and thus care about improving and evaluating teaching. In the last three decades, student evaluations of classroom teaching have played a prevalent role in the US, although opinions are mixed on whether the overall effect has been positive. It goes without saying that such feedback can be very important. But sometimes university administrators interpret student evaluations as if they were customer responses; that can be problematic because education serves a higher cause, and students are not clients. One typical administrator faux-pas is disregarding all information in the student questionnaire except the (last) question: “Would you recommend the instructor to other students?” Of course, ignoring valuable information provided by the other questions is inexcusable from a statistical, or just common-sense, viewpoint. Even more importantly, the effort by an instructor to score good evaluations may result in student pampering and an inadvertent lowering of the level of the course—a long-term loss for society as a whole.

What do you think? Post your comment in this Open Forum debate below.

1 Comment

  • An interesting topic! I stopped teaching for a living a few years ago. Various things led to this transition, one of them being a very disappointing experience with student evaluations and their interpretation. In my opinion the problem is of ethical nature and could be easily fixed to a mutual benefit of students, faculty and administrators. It is the adjective anonymous that needs to be changed to partially anonymous. More precisely, the students should be let to voice their opinions and concerns, with their identity undisclosed to the instructor and perhaps even the head of the department. However, in cases where the comments indicate serious problems in how the teaching was done, the vice-dean for education or their analogue should contact the student(s) who expressed such concerns, as well as their peers who did not, in order to get a better idea on the origins of the problem, and quite possibly a solution. Without this step, I am afraid that student’s evaluations remain one of the leading tools of the university administration for blackmailing faculty in order to assure the continuous production of degrees, the main polluting byproduct being the grade inflation. More on this and other worrisome academic practices can be found in my essays http://www.math.u-psud.fr/~limic/som/stateofmath.html

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