Student Evaluations and Claiming an Education
Discerning between "good" and "bad" teachers can pose a challenge for even the best students because "good" and "bad" is based on individual preference. All students have different learning styles, and there isn't a "one-size-fits-all" teacher. However, there may be a way to determine whether an instructor will help you reach your goals and learning objectives, based on students' self-reported evaluations.
To look into this closer, Scott Carrell and James West, two researchers interested in education, conducted a study comparing student evaluation scores and grades in the Air Force Academy. The study compared student-evaluated professor quality and introductory course grades with “follow-on” course grades the next semester. Students were assigned instructors at random, and exams were identical across classes and teachers. These conditions minimized external variables in the experiment which aimed to find correlations between student evaluations and grades
Some of the results were not surprising. They showed that high grades and positive student evaluations were positively correlated. Students may have evaluated the instructors' characteristics well because they knew they were excelling in the class. This could be because the professor engaged students and encouraged them to think critically about every topic. On the other hand, professors had the exams ahead of time, so maybe these instructors “taught the test”, meaning, they only gave information that would be graded. Carrel and West explained that often younger, higher-rated instructors would follow the standardized exams as their curriculum, while more experienced faculty would teach what they presumed to be important to the subject. Students with older, more poorly evaluated professors tended to have lower grades on the exams, despite their instructors teaching them “beyond the scope of the course.” What student likes a professor who gives them a bad grade, or doesn’t teach what’s on the exam? When using RateMyProfessor or similar sites, keep in mind that high evaluations could mean many students pass. If that is your learning objective, then that professor may be right for you.
However, students who do well in the first course with a highly rated professor did not excel as much in the “follow-on” course. Furthermore, if you had a poorly evaluated professor the first semester, you were more likely to do better in the succeeding class. This is not surprising, getting an easy A in Biology 101 and then barely passing Biology 102 (or some other class) is not uncommon. This suggests that highly rated professors sacrifice long-term student achievement for short-term success. Maybe the students who didn't do as well in the more difficult classes learned about how to study for the follow-on material. Perhaps these students had a deeper understanding of the material because the professor challenged them, or became used to working harder for the grades they thought were fair. When choosing a professor, especially early in a student’s academic career, it may be beneficial to register for courses taught by professors with lower ratings, because there may be room for greater academic achievement.
However, we cannot simply define a student with good grades as high achieving, because test scores cannot always determine whether a student actually learned more. There is a ceiling of achievement in standardized tests, and high achieving students have a smaller opportunity to grow. In a study that compared the standardized test scores of students that moved from public schools to charter schools, high achieving students did not make significant improvements in scores (Angrist, 243). Increased attention to individuals, better school supplies, and higher expectations from instructors do not necessarily help high achieving students. Test scores of low achieving students tend to improve more than test scores of high achieving students when placed in higher quality learning conditions. This may be because teachers tend to focus on students who are lower achieving, or who demand more individualized attention, because these students have room to grow. There is not necessarily an appropriate way to measure how much an instructor helped a high achieving student. Having considered this, a low achieving student may want to register for courses with instructors who have better evaluations, whereas a high achieving student may not have to care as much.
Determining whether a professor is "good" is based entirely off of individual preference. Some highly rated professors focus on achieving high test scores and may not be focused on developing skills that will benefit the student in the long run. On the other hand, a highly rated professor may be engaging and helping individuals to grow more. Ultimately, instructors who challenge their students tend to achieve the best long-term results, despite possibly being disliked, which is something to consider when choosing between the easy A or challenging yourself this upcoming semester.
Angrist, Dynarski, Kane, Pathak, and Walters, "Inputs and Impacts in Charter Schools: KIPP Lynn," American Economic Review 100(2) (May 2010), pp. 239-243
Lavy, "Performance Pay and Teachers' Effort, Productivity and Grading Ethics," American Economic Review 99(5) (December 2009), pp. 1979-2011
Carrell and West, "Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors," Journal of Political Economy 118(3) (June 2010), pp. 409-432