By Richard Vedder
Historically, I have been somewhat negative or at least ambivalent about student evaluations of professors. Students sometimes literally do not know who is a good teacher at the time they are taking a course, and sometimes are excessively swayed by the professor's ease of grading. It is not entirely an accident that grade inflation in America roughly began when student evaluations came into vogue 35 years or so ago.
On the flip side of that, however, there is little accountability in higher education, and student evaluations are one form. They convey information -- information that is useful to student consumers of products. And, by and large, the students seem to get it right. They like the professors who take teaching seriously, who know their subject, and devote time to helping students learn and transition into the adult world.
Professors often are especially furious with the rateyourprofessor.com web site. The rankings typically reflect small, non-random samples of students --often several years old, I suspect. Yet, as today's Inside Higher Education reveals, the correlation between these flawed evaluations and more comprehensive official evaluations is quite high. My own reading is that, by and large, the students with high evaluations on rateyourprofessor.com are pretty good, and the ones with low evaluations are pretty mediocre or bad. For some strange reason, I get extremely high (4.9 out of a possible 5) average evaluations on this site, and am even "hot", a particularly cherished designation I am told. Maybe this is further evidence of how flawed the evaluation system is, and maybe biases me in favor of this popular Web site.
In short, the evaluations are an attempt to create a "bottom line". Just as USNews rates colleges, and Consumer Reports rates autos and appliance, so rateyourprofessor.com rates professors. It is a legitimate attempt to convey information to students about the relative attractiveness of faculty. On the whole, I think it does more good than bad, and the principle of student evaluations probably should be extended further, including more systematic evaluation of university and college leaders by members of the university or college community.