Academic journal article College Student Journal

Grade Expectations and Student Evaluation of Teaching

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Grade Expectations and Student Evaluation of Teaching

Article excerpt

Promotion and tenure decisions are often linked to student evaluations of teaching. Previous studies show that some teachers try to influence student evaluation scores by "watering-down" course content and lowering grading standards. This study examines the links between course rigor and grades to evaluation scores. The results indicate that the level of difficulty does not affect evaluations, but grades and evaluations are positively correlated. Grades were measured as expected grades, which include the students' current grades and expected future grades. By examining both components, grading standards are disentangled from student attitudes. The results show current grades positively affect evaluations, while pessimistic attitudes toward future grades negatively influence evaluations. These results suggest that faculty do not have to "water-down" their courses and that they can positively influence their evaluations by addressing negative student attitudes about forthcoming coursework.


Faculty whose teaching effectiveness are measured by student evaluations are often suspicious of the motivations underlying their students' responses. These concerns are evident in Birnbaum's (2000) survey of college faculty. He found that 65 percent of surveyed faculty believed that higher grading standards would have a negative effect on students' evaluations. Seventy-two percent of the survey respondents admitted to "watering down" their courses as an attempt to increase evaluation scores. Goldman's (1985) earlier study of student behavior confirms these perceptions, finding that 70 percent of students indicated that their expected grade influenced teacher evaluations.

Researchers have often examined these links between student evaluations of teaching (SETs), course rigor, and grades. While the empirical associations between the level of course difficulty and evaluations are mixed (Cohen, 1981; Sixbury and Cashin, 1995; Clayson and Haley, 1990), the literature indicates that grades and evaluations are consistently positively correlated (Feldman, 1976; Stumpf and Freedman, 1979; Cohen, 1981; Marsh and Dunkin 1992). Although some studies link actual grades earned with evaluations (Marlin and Niss, 1980; Goldman, 1985), others correlate expected grades with evaluation scores (Seiver, 1983; Powell, 1977; Goldberg and Callahan, 1991; Feldman, 1997; Greenwald and Gillmore, 1997). However, both specifications of grades consistently result in a positive correlation between student grades and evaluation scores. Considering that Grimes (2002) found Principles of Economics students consistently overestimated their test performance, one would expect that students' optimism would inflate their teacher evaluation scores.

At most colleges and universities, SETs are typically given before all graded assignments for a course have been completed; therefore, in practice student responses take into account their expected grades, which includes both current actual grades and expected performance on remaining work. If students have optimistic (pessimistic) expectations, they may respond with higher (lower) SET scores. In this study, we examine teaching evaluations by college students near the end of a semester prior to the last midterm exam to determine how student expectations influence SET scores. Our empirical model controls for both the grade-to-date and the attitudes of students towards an upcoming test.


This study examines student evaluations of a Principles of Macroeconomics section at Mississippi State University (MSU). MSU is a public Land Grant institution; it is the largest university in the state, enrolling over 16,500 full-time students. These students come from all fifty states and 68 foreign countries. Eighteen percent of the student body is African American, 53.5 percent are male, the average age is 23.7 years, the average undergraduate GPA is 2. …

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