Academic journal article College Student Journal

Students' Perceptions of Course Difficulty and Their Ratings of the Instructor

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Students' Perceptions of Course Difficulty and Their Ratings of the Instructor

Article excerpt

Research dealing with the possible relationship between high grades and favorable student evaluation of instruction has focused on several possible explanations including reciprocal leniency. Although plausible, such explanations leave out the possible role of perceived difficulty. We hypothesized that student evaluations would be negatively affected when the course was harder than originally thought, regardless of grade earned, and we also hypothesized that student evaluations would be higher when the course was viewed as easier than initially expected, regardless of grade earned. Students in their first Psychology Statistics class and Introductory Psychology students responded to global summative items regarding their teacher's effectiveness. In addition, the students indicated how difficult the class was relative to their expectations. Finally, the student's alphabetic grade was recorded. We found that students who earned higher grades evaluated their teachers more favorably than did students who earned lower grades. However, after controlling for the grade earned, we found that students who thought the class was easier than expected evaluated the professor more favorably than did students who thought the course was harder than expected, who in turn evaluated the professor more negatively, regardless of grade earned. Although these results are correlational, they suggest that faculty may not be able to influence student evaluations through leniency, especially if the students already believe the course will be easy.


Over the last several decades, research on student evaluation of teaching effectiveness has considered literally hundreds of variables that may play a role in influencing the process of student evaluation. In general, these variables can be grouped into one of three categories: Structural course variables such as class size or required/elective status (e.g, Kulik & Kulik, 1974; McKeachie, 1997), instructor variables such as expertise (Marsh, 1980; Marsh & Roche, 1997) "personality" characteristics (Best & Addison, 2000), or nonverbal behavior (Babad, Avni-Babad & Rosenthal, 2004), and finally, student variables.

Several student variables have been shown to influence the evaluation process including the preexisting, or the emerging interest level in the course, the students' understanding of the purpose for which evaluations are to be used, and the grade earned in the course. For example, Marsh and colleagues (Marsh, 1980, 1984; Marsh & Roche, 1997) have suggested that piquing student interest in the course content may put into play positive attributional processes for the teacher. That is, students may attribute particular teaching abilities to the teacher rather than to the favorable learning environment that a teacher can create when surrounded by students who are obviously interested in the material.

Regarding the student's understanding of the evaluation process as a possible student variable that could influence evaluations, Chen and Hoshower (2003) found that students view formative uses of evaluation (to help the teacher improve) as being far more important than summative uses of evaluation (such as to make tenure or promotion decisions). Furthermore, Young, Delli, and Johnson (1999) found that students adopt different cognitive schemas, with resulting differences in evaluations, when these different purposes are used as the basis for evaluation.

However, of all the student variables that might affect evaluations of teaching, perhaps none has generated as much controversy as the role of expected or actual grades, with a number of studies finding positive correlations between grades or expected grades and evaluations of faculty. For example Aleamoni (1999) was able to document 37 studies conducted in the last several decades that have small, but persistent positive correlations between expected or received grades and the favorability of student evaluations. …

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