SOQs, grade inflation and a happy ending

By Natalie Wright

photo of Natalie Wright

Natalie Wright, Editor

When The Voice first set out to get Washtenaw Community College to release the results of student opinion questionnaires (SOQs) – students’ end-of-semester evaluations of their teachers – our primary motivation was that someone told us we couldn’t do it.

Yes, we believed it would be a valuable resource for students, and that legally, this is public information, but mostly it was a challenge, and we wanted to take it on.

But inevitably, in the four-month journey to acquire the SOQs, we learned a few things.

We faced a lot of opposition and heard a lot of arguments against making the SOQs public. At times, those arguments caused serious doubt, but mostly they reinforced our belief that what we were doing was important for students.

The best case I heard, which made me seriously question what we were doing, came in a letter to the editor from an instructor, which explained that making these evaluations public turns registration into a popularity contest and leads to grade inflation.

After considering this theory for months, I cannot accept it.

First, students do not rate their teachers solely on grades. To make this generalization is an insult to students, who are incredibly diverse in their educational motivations – especially at a community college.

Second, while these evaluations may be a factor in grade inflation, they are one among many. To bring the problem of grade inflation into the debate, we must also consider the administration’s use of evaluations for hiring and firing purposes and instructors’ own pride and apathy.

To say that grade inflation is due solely to students’ emphasis on grades is to use students as a scapegoat for a problem for which many parties share blame.

Furthermore, students’ emphasis on getting good grades is a symptom of a higher education system that is more about churning out employees than educated citizens.

Students are forced to play along with a system that often takes advantage of them, just to have a shot at a comfortable life. And as long as that’s the case, they deserve every opportunity to get what they want out of the system that is losing its purpose.

That said, despite the pressure, not all students are in college just for good grades – especially at a community college.

Many factors play into how students choose classes, but when two sections of the same class fit into their schedule, it often comes down to choosing between two instructors, and the majority of students turn to RateMyProfessor.com.

I’ll admit, every semester I’ve registered for classes, both at WCC and Oakland University, I’ve used the site. But every time, I read at least a few poorly written, poorly justified angry rants. Like any reasonable person, I don’t place much weight on these comments. However, if there are 10 angry rants under one teacher’s name, I’ll probably do what I can to avoid the teacher.

Recently, a friend pointed out to me, while she was planning her winter schedule, that sometimes the posts use a lot of the same language and oddly specific reasons for disliking an instructor. They were probably written by the same person.

There is no credibility to the site. Anyone can post anything they want to trash or build up someone’s reputation. Many students know this, but consider it an invaluable resource anyway. I am one of them.

When we’re investing thousands and thousands of dollars in our education, we’re going to use any information available, even flawed information, to try to get the most out of our money.

Yes, this creates a “popularity contest” among teachers.

Popularity among those you work for seems to me a pretty good measure of how a person does their job, as long as those doing the evaluating are fair. By using “popularity contest” as a derogatory term in regards to these evaluations suggests a major lack of respect for students’ fairness and judgment.

Despite what some instructors have said, students consider more than just grading and “entertainment value” – although these are both factors in what makes a good teacher. And often, entertainment value boils down to an obvious passion for the subject and a knack for public speaking – crucial qualities for a good teacher.

Ultimately, a good teacher understands that students come into every class with unique goals and needs and helps them get the most they can out of the class.

Allowing students to build a collective knowledge about instructors can guide them to instructors who can best meet their needs, not just who is “good” and who is “bad.”

While the numbers present a mostly “good” or “bad” ranking, we tried to divide the SOQs in a way that categorizes rankings based on what students want to know. This is how you will see them on our website. And most importantly, we will soon add a comments field where students can share more relevant, qualitative information.

Do instructors use blackboard or give paper handouts? Do they put PowerPoint notes on Blackboard for use in class? Do they put more weight on tests or homework? Do they require students to pay for an expensive textbook or print out free resources and do their best to cut costs for students? Do they teach visually or just lecture? Are they clear about what material will be covered in exams? Are they easy to understand or do they easily confuse most of their students?

In the comments on a site like RateMyProfessor, students can find hints at these things while discounting the overarching unjustified rage. Most college students are capable of thinking on a high enough level to read those reviews critically.

While RateMyProfessor presents a twisted picture, with a huge voluntary sample bias exacerbated by anonymity, the idea behind it is brilliant.

This is why The Voice set out to emulate that forum with a structure that provides more fair and accurate information, something many colleges have done.

Why shouldn’t the student body be allowed and encouraged to use its collective knowledge to make the most of their education and their money?

And honestly, the picture that is most clear in reviewing the SOQs: WCC students love their teachers. The results show very little variation in instructors’ average evaluations, with nearly all of them falling between four and five on a scale of one to five.

The entire WCC community should be proud of the story told by these SOQs, and proud to share the information with those who need it most – those who produced it.

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