Sunday, March 04, 2007

More about SIU grade inflation - "The Pre-Test"

I wrote about SIU's GPA being up before, I wrote about the nationwide trend for GPA being up, but real results being down. I have received comments from professors here, that there is no management pressure to increase your student evaluations and giveaway grades. Here is a strange story I heard recently that I thought would be interesting to share.

A professors is receiving their 5 year review (you know, this is what you will need to do to get tenure next year), has great research, but is only running student evaluations in the mid-3's out of 5. He meets with his Dean and John Dunn (then Provost) and they suggest that he needs to get his evaluations up to received tenure (he has 8 or more good papers).

The administrators suggest giving a "pre-test" to the students. What is a pre-test? It is going over, in detail, what will be on the test. A question by question review of exactly what will be on the test, in the class before the test. I asked what happened, he said he gave the pre-tests and his student evaluations went up to 4.6 out of 5, and he got tenure.

I was standing on campus and this fellow was with a couple of other professors. Everyone was nodding their heads like they believed him. I was very sure he was telling the truth at the time, or at least he believed what he was telling me. I asked how much do you change the pre-test before you give it as the test. He replied, not very much.

It has been many years since I was a student, but I don't remember the professors giving us the test questions before a test (much less working them). Once I got a final from a previous semester of out Morris Library and got an easy A (almost 100%) in a pretty difficult CS class, because the final I was given was a whole lot like it. Maybe this is the new way of doing education? Let me boldly say that if I was given a pre-test in every class, I would have been a straight A student. Without them, I was far less than that.

Is it OK to give this pre-test? I know it is OK to review before a test, but I don't think we are talking about the same thing. Is it OK for the administrators to have a meeting with a professor where they educate the professor on his tenure decision being based on student evaluations?

You know, it could be that SIU students have a higher GPA not because they are studying and learning more, but instead because management is using methods to drive it higher? I suspect that this pressure isn't just here at SIU, but is a society wide pressure for higher grades. I really wonder if the sky would fall if SIU started to strive for quality in results from students, instead of pandering.

As always, your comments are welcome.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

In my hundreds of interactions with professors at SIU, I have yet to hear even one of them suggest that they've met with the Provost as part of a pre-tenure review process. Heck, I can't think of more than a handful of cases in which professor's meet face-to-face with the Provost during the *tenure* process. That alone suggests that the case to which you refer is an abberation from the norm, yet you want to conclude "management" has a grade inflation "policy."

Grade inflation is more pernicious, quite frankly. It comes from a combination of people looking at students as (paying) customers, faculty members not wanting to be disliked, faculty members feeling guilty when students fail (it must be *our* fault afterall), etc.

Interested reader said...

Here is an interesting argument regarding tenure from one of the authors of Freakonomics. It seems somewhat relevant to your many points.

http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2007/03/03/lets-just-get-rid-of-tenure/

cynical prof said...

In my experience, there is no direct management pressure to increase our student evaluations. What really seems to matter for tenure is research. High student evaluations on their own won't matter. On the other hand, in my department at least, annual salary increases are partly tied to student evaluations. (Especially for lecturers. In the case of tenure track faculty, research also counts). The higher the evaluations, the bigger the increase. So the temptation is to please the students, and one way to please them is to make the tests easier, so naturally in many cases they're getting higher grades.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I love people who have hundreds of interactions with professors, are you a waitress at Pags? :) In order to find out things like how people are interacting with management you have to gain their trust and then ask. I have had hundreds of interactions with professors and I don't know who is gay. I don't know who has talked to senior management. We do know that the people who care the most, will talk to management the most. Just because you don't know, just means you don't know. What I know is that I can smell smoke and there may not be a fire, but I think we might reasonable assume that we should be worried.

Everyone has read the Freakonomics article? Everyone knows that your pay raise is tied to student evaluations at SIU. Everyone know the power of this on your subconscious actions?

One of the greatest surprises living in Carbondale is having so many professors think their actions aren't dictated to them by the culture of the institution around them. It is amazing how fast humans learn from rumor and fable about how the organization wants them to act (we can apply this idea to the City of Carbondale's mayor too). It is amazing how much power that "student retention" memo, plus pay raise based on student evaluations has in reality. If this wasn't about the management, how did so many smart professors become so average in real performance? Why have so many stopped trying? Is it because they are bad people or is it because they can't take the lack of ethics in the SIU culture anymore? Of course, this is the downside of tenure (sometimes you should move on).

What is the bottom line? Are some people pumping their grades for personal gain? Of course they are. Do you guys want to say that you personally aren't? OK, you aren't. But if 25% of the professors are giving away free grades on your watch, what does that say about the total SIU degree?

The market is voting, it might be time to watch the results a little closer.

Anonymous said...

I love people who have hundreds of interactions with professors, are you a waitress at Pags? :) In order to find out things like how people are interacting with management you have to gain their trust and then ask. I have had hundreds of interactions with professors and I don't know who is gay. I don't know who has talked to senior management. We do know that the people who care the most, will talk to management the most. Just because you don't know, just means you don't know. What I know is that I can smell smoke and there may not be a fire, but I think we might reasonable assume that we should be worried.


----------------------------------

No, I'm not a waitress at Pags. I'm a professor. So, I talk to other professors on a daily basis. Indeed, I've served on a number of college and university-wide decision making bodies and have therefore interacted with people from a wide array of departments. Bluntly put, I have more than one story that contradicts what you've said about "upper management practices." You overgeneralize more than the students I grade down for not having enough evidence.

If you think this is some problem at SIU, you're very shortsighted. *All* of academia has this trouble and, from my (yes, hundreds) of interactions with people in my discipline, I have yet to hear anyone suggest "management" is kicking them in the ass over it.

Peter in Carbondale said...

Now if you are trying to say that we should accept SIU's meritocracy, because the same thing is happening somewhere else, that sounds like a really bad idea. The results speak for themselves. SIU is on a downward slide. Your implication that there is nothing to be done, I'm going to hide in my office is pretty lame.

You seem to be able to write some fairly complete paragraphs and string together ideas. Do you think that SIU is headed in the right direction? Do you think the students are up to par? Do you think that instruction is good? My opinion is that you have your head in the sand on this issue.

Finally, unless you are someone really unique, you are a typical university professor and have your nose firmly stuck in one silo. As I have written to you before, have you called Marvin Zeman and asked him? If you haven't, you are far worse than I am. You are in the middle of it and defending it, but have no idea what is going on.

So -
Is SIU going in the right direction?
If you think it is, please tell us how?
Have you called Dr. Zeman and explored that reality with him?

Do your homework or go away.

Peter in Carbondale said...

I don't think you understand, I meant it. If you don't go and do some work, you should go away. You are writing about things that you don't understand and claiming to be an expert. Go do what experts do, do the research.

I don't think you will like what you find.

Anonymous said...

"Lack of ethics in the SIU culture"? Come on Peter. The other person was right. You are a great over-generalizer. How come you can have a seemingly lucid discussion over the Carbondale mayor's race, but when it comes to issues at SIU, you get goofy? Did you apply for a job there and not get it? What's up?
Contrary to what you said earlier, I do think SIU's on its way up. It may not be too apparent to you now, but you might want to climb aboard. We don't want to leave you behind...or do we?

Peter in Carbondale said...

I think what we have here is a difference of opinion about what is ethical. I think people being paid to work 40 hours a week and/or produce results, should do one or the other. Silly me. You guys aren't the Great Depression era professors and don't have their work ethic. The tenure system is broken.

We can get into management issues as well, but that SIU has a union for every employee says it all.

If you think that SIU is on the way up, the bottom must have been yesterday or the day before. Want to make a little wager on enrollment numbers in the Fall?

I think that SIU has already left me behind and that is a good thing for me. Dealing with SIU is pretty amazing from the outside. To interact with a culture that has decided to shoot for being below average, is hard to stomach.

Granted there are a whole lot of good people trying to do good things. The problem is that most of them are hiding in their offices, because things are so bad they can't make a difference. My feeling is that this will be Poshard's biggest problem, his lack of leadership to inspire the troops to do great things.

What SIU needs is a good 20% of all headcount layoff and a complete revamp of management.

Hope that helps you understand where I was coming from.

Don said...

I write as a former SIU professor who moved to a more challenging position in academia, and who continues to struggle with expectations from both students and higher-ups that are not only unrealistic, but also, may I say, unethical.

As an undergraduate student, I took several math classes from a man whose idea of a review session consisted of two words: 'Know everything.' If it had been mentioned in class, it was fair game, in whatever context, so long as the questions on the exam were reasonable (and they were). Those experiences were crucial in my development, for I learned right away that it was up to me, that the responsibility for a good grade was mine, and mine alone.

I've carried that idea into the classroom, with mixed results, to say the least. I had several people at SIU (but I've not experienced this at my current job, at least not yet) ask me whether I would issue a practice exam in advance of the genuine article. I always told them no. Further, I told students that, if I were to conduct a review session, it would be student-driven, that is, the students would come into the class to present any questions they might have. As you might surmise, the average session lasted no more than twenty minutes. The exam grades tended towards the abysmal, as might be expected. The exceptions to this trend, without fail, consisted of people who asked questions of me both during the lecture and outside of class, that is, those who did well were those who took ownership of the material.

This is why giving a 'practice exam' is inherently unethical -- or for that matter, doing anything in order to curry the favor of students. Jack Kemp's supply-side analogy of a rising tide that lifts all boats is not applicable here, for in this case you are raising the poorly-built, ill-tended crafts along with the sturdy ships which have been made so by diligent effort. By giving a practice test, you are telling the hardworking students in your class that their efforts are essentially for nought; why expend all of that additional energy towards learning the material?

Call such pandering what it is: academic welfare. Economic welfare programs have not worked in any environment in which they've been enacted, as the potential for abuse is too great, and as the recipients of this unwarranted largesse learn exactly the wrong lessons by way of this supposed generosity. The same things may certainly be said of its academic counterpart.

I left SIU for precisely the reasons of which we write in this comment section. I have an excellent research program, performed service duties faithfully and well during my time at Southern, and taught my classes effectively. However, because I come off as a 'hard ass', my student evaluation scores were consistently between a 3 and a 3.5. Those who worked hard in my class, however, appreciated my efforts, and said so in writing, one young man (who is now at UIUC) going so far as to say that I was the best professor he had during his time at Southern. It is not my goal to be immodest, but rather to make a vital point, namely that tough love has its own, and very gratifying, rewards.

None of that mattered to the departmental committee, who scuttled my bid for tenure solely on the basis of insufficiently high student evaluation scores. I received confirmation from a member of the committee that this was indeed the only reason. Moreover, this same person told me that if I babied the students for a year, going so far as to give them practice tests, then tenure for me would be assured. I found the notion of being a pedagogical version of Santa Claus entirely distasteful, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'll grant you, I've got problems at the new place, namely kids whose parents pay $40,000 per year who in turn believe they're entitled to good grades. To this point, however, nobody has told me to 'ease up or else'.

Too many people in this world possess neither the courage nor the self-confidence to challenge immoral or unethical paradigms, choosing instead to rationalize matters, hold their noses and collect their paychecks on a regular basis. I'm reminded of a blog entry I read not too long ago that contrasted successful people with their unsuccessful counterparts. The blog entry ended by saying this:

'Most successful people do what 95% of others do not do. So by trying to appease that 95%, to live in their eyes, you're already doomed on that path of failure.

'Successful people do what unsuccessful people dare not do: living by their own standards, not by someone else's.'

As a postscript, please forgive the long entry. I haven't posted here in a while, and, as the spring quarter has just started, I have a bit more free time than usual. That will not last, of course, which is fine with me.

Scott McClurg said...

"You guys aren't the Great Depression era professors and don't have their work ethic. The tenure system is broken."


Funny, I must have been mistaken when I saw four or five of my colleagues at work this weekend (and this has been a trend for my entire tenure at SIU). Your tendencies toward exaggeration are surprising for someone who is so successful.


"I left SIU for precisely the reasons of which we write in this comment section. I have an excellent research program, performed service duties faithfully and well during my time at Southern, and taught my classes effectively. However, because I come off as a 'hard ass', my student evaluation scores were consistently between a 3 and a 3.5. Those who worked hard in my class, however, appreciated my efforts, and said so in writing, one young man (who is now at UIUC) going so far as to say that I was the best professor he had during his time at Southern. It is not my goal to be immodest, but rather to make a vital point, namely that tough love has its own, and very gratifying, rewards."

As someone who is also a notorious hard ass with his students, I empathize with you about the trouble it can bring from students. That said, no one at SIU made you change your teaching style (which is, I believe, Peter's main point). Also, despite holding many of the same positions as you - no pre-test, student-driven reviews -- I consistently get evaluations over 4. (All of this is documented on my webpage.) Being a hard ass, a good teacher, and one who can get along with students is not impossible.

Peter in Carbondale said...

Scott, Scott, Scott -

Your threshold for sloth isn't set correctly. If 20% of the people in your organization aren't working, you are screwed. If we take all the professors at SIU, the number is much higher then 20% isn't it? Congratulations on your department having a good day, you guys aren't a department with a bunch of well paid super hires are you?

Run along down to my Father's office and have him give you the stories about working on Saturday in 1974. I suspect that your work ethic, that you are so proud of, would make you pretty below average compared to the SIU Golden Age professors. Maybe you are just a plain out superstar, good for you if you are. Only at SIU are people proud of a solid 40 hours a week, good grief.

It is OK with me when you say, "it is possible" and crap like that. But that isn't the way that management works. The goal of management has to be to make it easy, trackable and reward the right behavior. SIU has done this, it is easy, trackable and rewarded to give away grades and get higher student evaluations.

I always enjoy talking to Chemistry or Engineering professors and the like who only teach students in their major. Tell you they are doing great, but admit that Math, English and the rest of the little people filter all the real losers out of their classes. I'm guessing down in Math that the high schools would filter out the students who can't do high school algebra out of their Calc and Trig classes too. At real universities they pretest for this sort of thing, but not SIU.

You are generalizing and talking about statistically insignificant samples. I know a fuller picture, I have interview a whole lot of SIU's students.

Scott McClurg said...

"Run along down to my Father's office and have him give you the stories about working on Saturday in 1974. I suspect that your work ethic, that you are so proud of, would make you pretty below average compared to the SIU Golden Age professors. Maybe you are just a plain out superstar, good for you if you are. Only at SIU are people proud of a solid 40 hours a week, good grief."

Until recently, I've been working 50-60 hours a week. So are many of my colleagues. Your observations are off base for my department at least.


"You are generalizing and talking about statistically insignificant samples."

Oh goodness, look who is talking. Even if you have "interview" [sic] a whole lot of SIU students.

Peter in Carbondale said...

The best you can do is a typo? Oh Scott, you just lost.

At least you understand that you are talking about your department and I'm talking about the university now. Kind of interesting when you tell someone they are generalizing and they tell you that you haven't done your homework isn't it?

Sounds like you are a great guy. Thank you for using your real name and engaging. Now what are you going to do, hide in your office or figure out how to improve the university?

The results for SIU speak for themselves. Every university is up on enrollment in practically the whole country, but not SIU. Tell you anything?

Scott McClurg said...

"Now what are you going to do, hide in your office or figure out how to improve the university?"

What makes you think I don't do what I can to improve the university? Indeed, most of my colleagues spend a great deal of time working to improve the university in a variety of ways.

As far as enrollment, I'll be blunt -- it has as much or more to do with the economy and tuition prices as it does anything else.

Peter in Carbondale said...

You know, I have really enjoyed reading Scott's comments. Haven't agreed with him, but they have been thoughtful. Then we get to this -

> As far as enrollment, I'll be blunt -- it has as much or more to do with the economy and tuition prices as it does anything else.

This is among the stupidest thing I have ever seen in the comments in this blog. It is even stupid compared to what I write. Such a cop out, such crap. Come back to reality dude, this is about SIU. Everyone else has the same problems and their enrollment is up. Poor SIU, the world is against it and it isn't anything they have done.

Reminds me of people who think the successful are lucky. I could be him, I just didn't work hard, didn't take any chances, didn't manage anyone and didn't have a commercial idea. If not for all that little execution stuff, I would be successful too. He is so lucky.

Next thing you know you will be saying that professors who don't publish are just victims of a conspiracy. Has little to do with luck and everything to do with work.

Before I knew you were just stuck in your silo and were ignorant of reality. But this is just stupid. Rethink Scott, SIU's problems are not bad things happening to good people, they are earned.

Don Mills said...

Scott,

No one told me I had to change my teaching style, that's true -- but then again, if I'm tough in the classroom and offer demanding homework problems, then roll over and play dead at exam time by giving them a pre-test, nothing good has been accomplished. The good students will still do well, but the mediocre students' grades will be raised significantly as a result of my pandering -- unless you think I should make homework count 80% of the final grade, which would be a most absurd decision on anyone's part.

By the way, and this underscores Peter's point, I taught my fair share of 100 and 200 level courses at SIU, which is where the scores of 3 came from. I consistently scored 4's and 5's in the 300 to 500 level classes, so your reasoning has been shown to be ad hoc, at best.

Moreover, I note from your SIU web page that, of the six syllabi you offer on your front page, no fewer than five are for 500-level courses. It's easy to say it's sunny outside when your head is above the clouds, Scott. I invite you to land your orbiting spacecraft and take stock of what's happening on ground level, for instance in Math 139 (Finite Math), where students need only to be able to count on their fingers and toes, i.e. pass Math 107 (Intermediate Algebra) to have access to the class.

Sit in sometime on a 107 or 139 class, and see if your opinion of the state of SIU does not become more enlightened.

Scott McClurg said...

In all fairness Don, all that shows is that you do worse on student evaluations 100-200 level courses than in 300-500 level courses. If that isn't a selection effect at its finest, I don't know what is.

"By the way, and this underscores Peter's point, I taught my fair share of 100 and 200 level courses at SIU, which is where the scores of 3 came from. I consistently scored 4's and 5's in the 300 to 500 level classes, so your reasoning has been shown to be ad hoc, at best."

I don't see how it shows my reasoning to be ad hoc. First, my point was merely that my case illustrates the possibility of doing research, being tough in the classroom, and getting decent evaluations. As far as that conclusion goes, the evidence is spot on. If pressed, I know I can come up with more data points to broaden the conclusion, but that wasn't my goal. Second, considering that the vast majority of my student evaluations come from a 100-level course, I'm not sure that the point you're trying to make holds.

"Moreover, I note from your SIU web page that, of the six syllabi you offer on your front page, no fewer than five are for 500-level courses. It's easy to say it's sunny outside when your head is above the clouds, Scott."

Some mathematician you are. Of the 422 student evaluations I use on my webpage, 341 come from Pols 114. That is a core course and a good cross-section of SIU students; I'd say that I'm looking at things from somewhere below the stratosphere.

I strongly suspect that part of what you're dealing with is a severe case of math-phobia, which is just as aborrant as grade inflation. But I don't know how that proves Peter's point that its university policy to systematically inflate grades.

don mills said...

Scott,

The departmental committee clearly made it a point to concentrate on my scores in the 100 and 200 level classes, so if you want to talk about a 'selection effect', go ahead, but that's neither here nor there in regards to the main thrust of these messages, namely that pandering to students at all levels of the curriculum occurs on an ongoing basis, and one of the unfortunate results of that is grade inflation, something we both agree is abhorrent.

I regularly failed thirty to forty percent of my Math 139 students, and every one of them deserved an F, math phobia be damned. Fail a third of your students in any class you teach, and let's see how the higher-ups react. Math departments everywhere are maligned to one extent or another because, if the job is done right, people who don’t belong at an institution of higher learning are shown the door. That ‘watershed’ quality, I daresay, is not possessed by political science, despite the inherent importance of the discipline.

Scott, whether you like to admit it or not, your view is myopic, thus leading to ad hoc reasoning. Why? Because your vision of SIU, as played out through the students you see in Pols 114, is far more limited than the view a math (or English, for that matter) professor enjoys. In the math department, one sees essentially everyone who goes to SIU; by way of contrast, no COS student ever has to darken the door of a classroom where Pols 114, or any other Pols course, is taught.

Additionally, not all 'core courses' are created equal. Pols 114 is an afterthought for those who need 3 hours in anthropology, political science, or a number of other disciplines. Courses like Math 113, Math 139, Math 140, and Math 150, on the other hand, are often make or break courses for the students who take them. If they don't pass the math course, they don't get to go on, even if they do have a nice job waiting for them.

To be blunt, you can trumpet your 341 evaluations from Pols 114 until the cows come home, and it won’t matter, because you’re comparing apples with oranges. The disciplines are different, the difficulty of the material is different, the sets of students themselves are different, et cetera. There’s no need to take offense at this assertion (even if you want to engage in ad hominem attacks regarding my mathematical ability, which I simply smile at before moving on). I’m simply saying that you lack the big picture. Your position as a political science professor doesn’t necessarily prevent you from gaining a global view. However, the more you trumpet high evaluation scores from a course that lies, like it or not, on the periphery of most peoples' college experiences, the more you undermine your ability to persuade others and thus effect change. Talking to scores of professors is a start, but only that.

Scott McClurg said...

Don,

We learn some helpful things from this post.


-- It was a departmental committee that pressured you. That hardly makes this an institutional-wide problem.

--You think Pols 114 doesn't get a cross-section of students from the university. Says you, bub. Around a quarter or so of all SIU students go through that class, so its hardly some select group. The evidence stands as reasonable evidence.

--My view is myopic because I'm in Political Science and yours is not because you're in Math? I'd fail my students for such crummy logic. I have yet to claim anything outside of my personal experience; you claim your experience is representative of the institution writ large. What's ironic is that I know a math professor or two; both has standards, both received tenure while at SIU.

--You write, "The disciplines are different, the difficulty of the material is different, the sets of students themselves are different, et cetera." I believe I suggested as much when I said you might be running into math-phobia. (And for what its worth, I've taught our undergraduate statistics course a number of times as well. Its not as if I don't get that the students struggle with that material). What I question is that this is somehow institution-wide policy and anyone here has yet to offer more than thinly veiled conjecture in support of that assertion.

--You also write, "I regularly failed thirty to forty percent of my Math 139 students, and every one of them deserved an F, math phobia be damned. Fail a third of your students in any class you teach, and let's see how the higher-ups react." Interesting. I have failed 23%, 27%, 11%, and 36% in four of my five large lecture courses (the data are missing in one case). In another case, I flunked well over half of a small statistics class. What happened? I got nominated for a teaching award. Now there is nothing particularly special about me -- my average grade is probably a little lower in that class than most of my colleagues. If this is such a huge administrative concern, I expect I would've heard from someone by now!

--You write that, "Additionally, not all 'core courses' are created equal. Pols 114 is an afterthought for those who need 3 hours in anthropology, political science, or a number of other disciplines." And yet the largest college on campus is CoLA, with pre-law and poltiical science accounting for a notable proportion of the majors; its less marginal than you might think.

--"There’s no need to take offense at this assertion (even if you want to engage in ad hominem attacks regarding my mathematical ability, which I simply smile at before moving on)." Oh please, I'm sure you've heard worse at every professional conference you've ever attended. I was making light of the fact that you did a superficial analysis of my data, not of your skills.


You guys miss the point. I don't deny that this probably occurs. I deny that it occurs systematically as a matter of policy (written, verbal, whathaveyou) at SIU and that the basic problem is more systematic across universities.

In any case, I don't see the point in arguing with you anymore, especially with my name attached. Afterall, some of you folks sit on college committees and I have to work with you; no sense pissing them off more than I already do.

don mills said...

Scott,

I have made my points, all good ones, and am frankly unconcerned with whether you agree or not. You are one of the 'fat and happy' members of the SIU system, and I wish you only happiness in your remaining years on the Illinois educational system's version of the Titanic. Enjoy being a tenured professor at a third-rate institution of higher learning (U.S. News and Princeton Review's assessments, not mine), reveling in your semi-retired status while the band plays on.

Oh, by the way, and in reference to your last paragraph, I've never had a problem putting my John Hancock alongside anything I've written -- goes back to the 'courage' and 'self-confidence' I referred to in my original post. Take note, McClurg.