Student Evaluations – Part 1

Higher education is optional education for students. As a result of this alone, the norms and routines of K-12 education can be immediately and wholly abandoned if desired. This includes separating education from evaluation, to greater or lesser extents. Many years ago I began to separate education from evaluation to a lesser extent in order to get students to focus on learning the material, retaining the material, and applying the material in practice. This has worked extremely well, as described in Lean Teaching.

But, what would happen if education were separated from evaluation to a greater extent? Might that further improve student’s focus on learning the material, retaining the material, and applying the material in practice? How would one do that? One way could be to evaluate students’ performance using a simple checklist. Students would earn a check for attending class, a check for completing homework assignments, a check for completing in-class assignments, and so on.

The quality of students’ input for completing homework assignments, for example, is immaterial from the teacher’s perspective because students are adults who have made a decision to do good or bad work, just as they do in all aspects of personal life and work life. Students who are interested in the course topic or who are motivated to learn will make a decision to do good work, as they typically do, while students who are not interested in the course topic or who are not motivated to learn will make a decision to do bad work, as they typically do.

In this post-evaluation world, feedback from the professor is no longer pushed onto students. Instead, students interested in feedback pull feedback from the professor. Students not interested in feedback will not ask the professor for feedback, thereby saving everyone some time. Once again, students are adults who have made a decision, which they must live with, to seek feedback or not.

Checkmarks earned by students could be used in a pass/fail grading system (similar to how go/no-go gages are used in manufacturing). Alternatively, the checkmarks that students earn could be easily converted to a letter grade as required by university policy (and tradition). I prefer the pass/fail system because high letter grades (and high grade-point averages) make students think that they know something. This leads to overconfidence and errors in judgment and decision-making, for which other people often pay the price. Pass means go, and fail means no-go. Nothing more.

Ultimately, student evaluation is made more effectively, on average, every day in the real world than in a contrived academic environment that narrowly evaluates information gained. A professor’s evaluation is but one of thousands of evaluations that students will encounter over their lifetime: at work, among family, their spouse, friends, and so on. The fact is that students have to take what they learned in school and put it into practice in the real world, for years, in order to claim knowledge and competency.

My view is that far too much is made of student evaluation in higher education. For example, the people who helped cause the financial meltdown beginning in 2008 graduated from top schools and had high grade-point averages. Student evaluations, we must admit, do little to prevent costly social or work-related problems. The current construction for student evaluation culminates in the appearance of both precision (3.79 GPA) and relevancy (with Honors), neither of which are true.

Separating education from evaluation to a greater extent, coupled with the other elements of Lean teaching described in Lean Teaching, could improve students’ focus on learning the material, retaining the material, and applying the material in practice. The question that will be addressed in Part 2 is this: What is the critical knowledge and skills that all professors must teach?

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