Friday, 14 June 2013

Student Evaluations: Campbell's Law in Action

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor" - Cambell's Law.

I am reminded of this and Goodhart's Law by an article reporting the results of psychology research into how students rated their lecturers and how they performed in their immediate and future exams. A summary of the results is, "We find that less experienced and less qualified professors produce students who perform significantly better in the contemporaneous course being taught, whereas more experienced and highly qualified professors produce students who perform better in the follow-on related curriculum." and "that
student evaluations reward professors who increase achievement in the contemporaneous course being taught, not those who increase deep learning."

One potential explanation mooted was, "the less experienced professors may adhere more strictly to the regimented curriculum being tested, whereas the more experienced professors broaden the curriculum and produce students with a deeper understanding of the material. This deeper understanding results in better achievement in the follow-on courses."

This is a demonstration of the folly of short term drivers and the law of unintended consequences. Teaching to the test becomes the optimum strategy for teachers to satisfy student evaluation scores, yet this is not optimal for long term performance. As a junior lecturer, one does not have the luxury of being idealistic and teaching what you think the students should learn but what will satisfy exam pass rates and evaluation forms.

Unfortunately, these same pressures have been at work throughout various education systems, from primary, secondary and through to tertiary levels. By subjecting schools and universities mercilessly to the drivers of tests scores and league tables, these become ends in themselves. It leads to a "culture of low expectations", where students are not pushed to fulfil their potential.

Education is not about passing exams, nor is it a popularity contest. It is about the betterment of the individual and consequently society.