To those who are super concerned with grade inflation, this seems to be the smoking gun. Low grades lead to bad evaluations from students, and good evaluations are the result of high grades. There is an upward incentive pressure on grades that is degrading the quality of higher education. QED.
Only, that’s not at all what’s going on in the study.
The study is described thusly:
To test her hypothesis that poor teaching evaluations are a form of revenge, Vaillancourt designed three related studies, each involving between 150 and 176 mostly first-year university students.
Students were given up to 20 minutes to write a short essay on an assigned topic, and were told their work would be graded by professors or teaching assistants. The essays were then randomly assigned a high or low grade and, in some cases, comments such as “No suggestions, great essay!” or “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!”
Students were then asked to provide feedback to their evaluator about his or her marking ability, fairness, helpfulness and general competence.
In the first study, participants given poor marks and negative comments were almost 10 times more likely to rate their evaluator harshly than those given high marks and positive comments.
It seems reasonable to conclude that anonymous scoring with zero useful, actionable feedback generates the results described. But I would also submit that anonymous scoring with zero useful, actionable feedback is crummy teaching.
And students in the study argued this quite strongly. Consider the epigraph from the published research piece:
My evaluator must not mark hastily and should re-read key points to offer better feedback. It is actually the poorest job in terms of evaluation that I’ve ever seen. It is easy for the evaluator to talk crap like “This is the worst essay I have ever read,” but when offering feedback about how it may be improved say nothing except “needs clarification.” How is this supposed to help me improve? This evaluator is a complete dumb ass, excuse my French.
This is far from a call for a better grade. It’s a call for meaningful feedback, and in fact supports a hypothesis that student feedback has a kernel of truth to which we ought to pay attention.
Indeed, Ken Bain and his colleagues argue that:
- when we ask students to rate the quality of their learning in a course, they are actually decent judges of this (notice that this is not among the things asked in the study in question), and
- the best college teachers sought to understand and meaningfully interpret feedback from students, using it to reflect on and improve their practice.
To restate, in Bain’s study, instructor quality was negatively correlated with instructor dismissiveness of feedback from students. Kernel of truth, people.