Can Professors Buy Positive Evaluations Through Grade Inflation?

Do you take your professor evaluations extremely seriously? Do you meticulously add up every lackluster response, burst of insight, or hilarious joke about the dean? Well, it turns out your evaluation is still biased by how you expect to do in the class, and according to a recent paper that provides an incentive for professors to buy positive evaluations through grade inflation.

Course evaluation scores are known to be positively correlated with students’ expected grades, and this paper tests whether or not there is an incentive for the instructor to “buy” higher evaluation scores by inflating grades. To test this hypothesis, I use unique data from the University of Washington’s Office of Educational Assessment that includes a measure of each student’s relative expected grade in the course. I find that there is an incentive for instructors to grade leniently after accounting for the potential endogeneity of the relative expected grade variable due to unobserved teacher productivity and unobserved heterogeneity of instructors and departments.

What’s interesting is that according to the paper many schools already have professor evaluation algorithms that take expect student grades into account, they just don’t place enough weight on it.

The silver-lining here is that the principal-agent problem in professor evaluations doesn’t apply to other areas where professionals are fighting anonymous evaluation (e.g. medical care.) Professors are responsible for providing two distinct products — a grade that serves as a signal of student ability and the actual knowledge students acquire  — and that allows them to buy a positive evaluation on the delivery of one product by freely increasing the quality of the other product. Doctors, on the other hand, deliver only one product (medical care), and so the only way doctors can “buy” a positive evaluation is to do a good job delivering their lone product (i.e providing excellent or extremely cost-effective medical care.)
Ewing, A. (2011). Estimating the Impact of Relative Expected Grade on Student Evaluations of Teachers Economics of Education Review DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2011.10.002

One Response to Can Professors Buy Positive Evaluations Through Grade Inflation?

  1. London Counselling says:

    It seems like common sense that a student would think better of a professor that they were getting a good grade from. After all, no one likes to take the blame for their own lack of effort, talent, ability, preparation, etc. in a class. This is basically what “grading on a curve” is about.

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