May 29th, 2008

More on Easy Courses and High Ratings


My blog entries aren’t generating as many responses as I had hoped. Some of you are sending me personal emails … thanks. Be welcome to share your responses with all of us reading.

That being said, a blog comment posted on April 8 did generate a couple of interesting responses (I know, I need to respond to comments in a more timely manner … it’s been a busy month). My original blog (April 8) highlighted the research on student ratings that establishes (really pretty definitively) that easy courses—those that don’t challenge students, don’t include rigorous content, and don’t require much work—don’t get higher ratings than more difficult courses.

The first response allowed for the findings, but the writer didn’t think faculty would find the evidence convincing. The writer asked for logical reasons that could be used to persuade faculty of these counterintuitive findings. The second response does a really nice job of explaining why those reasons are needed. The findings are counterintuitive because students appear so “into” easy courses. As the respondent notes, when advising students and inquiring about a particular course selection, students happily report that they want to take that course because they’ve heard it’s easy. And the respondent goes on to point out that faculty may ignore the evidence and hold to their beliefs about easy courses and high ratings as a way of justifying their own not very impressive ratings. They can rationalize lower ratings because they teach hard courses with standards and students don’t “like” those kinds of courses.

However, you certainly can’t confront a faculty member who believes that easy courses win high ratings with something like, “Is that what you believe because your ratings are low?”

Here are a couple of other possibilities. Students may appear to “like” easy courses, but they still understand that harder courses offer better learning experiences. Couldn’t this simply be the manifestation of the old Freudian pain-pleasure principle? Lots of us like chocolate cake better than exercise. The need for and value of exercise does not escape us. But we still groan painfully when confronted with the treadmill and moan pleasurably when served the cake.

Or what about this? Why would students rate an easy course higher? If it doesn’t require much work or contain much substance, then the teacher probably isn’t putting forth much effort either. Does it seem likely that students will highly rate teachers who don’t try hard? In every easy course, there are at least some students motivated to do everything they need to get the good grade. How do they feel when classmates who devote much less time and effort get the same grade? Accomplishments that come without much effort don’t mean that much to recipients either. Students maybe happy for the easy A, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they thought it was a good course.

Bottom line: I think students deserve more credit for being able to sort through these issues than faculty typically give them.

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Jennifer Imazeki

    I think that another reason why faculty have a hard time believing the evidence that ratings aren't higher in easier classes is because, as with a lot of research, if there is evidence on the other side, people will believe the 'evidence' that is more consistent with their own experience. And I know there have been some papers lately that used data from and found strong correlations between 'easiness' and 'quality'. So even if the quality of the other studies is better, people will believe what they want to believe.But I like your exercise analogy! I definitely believe students can and do appreciate that easier doesn't mean better. I always get student comments that suggest that's true (e.g., students say it was impossible to get an A but they learned a ton). (and btw, I wouldn't feel bad about the lack of comments – most academics who even read blogs have come to it fairly recently and I read somewhere that you should expect 1 or 2 comments for every 100 people who read a post!)

  • Dispersemos

    Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts – please continue!Regarding course/instructor ratings, don't the same principles of assessment of students apply to assessment of instructors? I mean that the research on assessing students says that learners should be involved in the development of assessment tools, so it seems that course instructors must also be involved in developing the evaluation forms used by students to rate courses. How much will ratings mean to instructors if they are not able to shape questions about how students learn in their courses? I grant that for aggregate evaluation data to be useful across departments and programs, there must be some type of common form, but when it comes to determining an individual instructor's ratings, he/she must have input into the method of assessment relative to his/her courses and learning goals. I agree that students are usually more subtle about distinguishing between instructor rating and course difficulty. I think instructors are reluctant to acknowledge this, in part, due to lack of participation in developing the means of assessment.