Kristi Upson-Saia is known as a tough grader. So she's entitled to feel a little nervous this time of year, when the tables are turned and her religion students at Occidental College in Los Angeles are the ones grading her.
"Personally, it can be devastating when you have the student who doesn't appreciate what you've done," said Upson-Saia, an assistant professor whose college looks carefully at student evaluations when considering promotions.
For most of higher education's history, colleges couldn't have cared less what students thought of their teachers' performance. The Puritan ministers who ran America's earliest colleges never asked students if their instructors were "accessible enough."
But times have changed, and the result is a debate with a twist of role reversal, as some academics argue that students' often-whimsical comments can carry too much weight.
Student evaluations picked up steam in the 1960s as students demanded more of a say in the academic life of their schools. More recently, the inexorable rise in college costs has students, families and legislators demanding more accountability and value.
Now almost universal
Some form of end-of-semester evaluation by students now is almost universal, and that doesn't take into account the Internet, where Web sites such as RateMyProfessors.com have created a far more public process that parallels colleges' evaluations. The sites are popular, but annoy teachers with their influence over which classes students choose and their snippy comments.
The whole trend, along with a seemingly endless stream of studies on how to conduct and use student evaluations, have fed a broader debate about how much "customer satisfaction" should count in education. After all, sometimes making customers uncomfortable is good for them, teachers argue.
"Faculty should know how the students have responded to their class," said Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. But he notes that students get no guidance on how to critique teachers, often get one-size-fits-all questions regardless of the course, and too often are asked for comments only at the end of the course. By then, it's too late to change anything.
Students are usually eager to leave on the last day of class and rush through responses, if they bother at all.
Some colleges make them mandatory. But Shulman says that's like the old practice of making kids at summer camp write home before they get dinner.
"You get letters like, 'Hi Dad, they won't let me eat until I write to you,'" he said.
Not all comments are indifferent
Not all comments are indifferent. Some are thoughtful and useful. But others are capricious. That sometimes worries young teachers, for whom evaluations can play a significant role in whether or not they are promoted to tenure.
For instance, professors who give good grades get better reviews, studies have shown. It isn't clear if that means teachers can "buy" affection with grade inflation, or whether the good grades and reviews both reflect genuinely better teaching.
There's a similar effect for physically attractive professors, according to a much-discussed 2003 study by two University of Texas researchers ("Beauty in the Classroom: Professors' Pulchritude and Putative Pedagogical Productivity"). One possible explanation was that better-looking teachers simply hold students' attention longer, so they actually are more effective.
"If you're in class because a professor is good looking, you're still paying more attention," co-author Daniel Hamermesh said in an interview.
Other studies have documented how students respond differently to men and women. Female professors are more likely to get called "accessible," "enthusiastic" and "caring." Men are more likely to be described as "brilliant." Such research troubled Upson-Saia, at Occidental, so much that she actually tells her students about it to make them aware of their potential biases before they fill out their forms.
Some not above bribing
One study even found students who were given chocolate gave their instructors higher marks.
Taken together, these studies have been interpreted to portray students as "vapid little vessels who are influenced by anything and everything," complains Michael Theall, a professor of teacher education at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Sure, better-looking teachers get better evaluations, Theall says. But that's a universal fact of life. People like better-looking politicians, too. That doesn't mean nobody should bother voting.
Does the process benefit students?
Many colleges have become more sophisticated about evaluations. For instance, Upson-Saia said Occidental has added questions about student participation, to help tease out whether negative comments are coming from people who were engaged in the course.
Yet North Carolina State English professor Cat Warren, who also heads the state chapter of the American Association of University Professors, still finds aspects of the evaluation process troubling. Too often, she says, colleges use evaluations as a crutch to replace the genuine mentoring younger teachers need.
It can, when professors know their teaching counts. Many universities, including Northwestern and Colorado, make the results of student surveys available to students choosing classes. At some campuses, student governments publish similar statistics. One could argue the overall effect is good — more students end up in better-taught classes.
At the University of Texas, while students have free access to course evaluation ratings, most still pay $5 per semester for a service from the Web site pickaprof.com, Hamermesh says. The reason: The private service publishes grade distributions for classes, helping students identify the easy rides.
Shulman considers such Web sites as pickaprof.com and RateMyProfessor.com "side effects of what is overall a very healthy phenomenon."
"Teaching is so important it's got to go public," he said. "Once it does, you've got to be prepared for some people to like it more than others. That's the deal."
Upson-Saia says she often finds her students' comments helpful — and tries to brush off the occasional negative ones.
"I'm willing for them not to like me in order to teach them something," she said.