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Performance Bonuses

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"Performance Bonuses"

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I think there are definitely some obvious problems with Texas A&M’s plan to offer cash bonuses to professors who get good student evaluation scores. Most notably, you could imagine a lot of profs gaming the system. But a lot of the very hostile reaction to this idea among academics with blogs strikes me as less about the flaws with the process than about the inevitable human tendency to want to avoid being held accountable to impersonal quantitative metrics. You can see that from the nature of Dave Noon’s counterproposal:

If the administration at A&M were serious about improving classroom performance, they’d invest quite a bit more money in pedagogical training for their graduate students; hiring more professors and reducing class sizes; offering release-time for professors to design new courses; and so on and so forth. But since they’re clearly not serious, this is what they’re offering instead.

These are fine ideas, but they’re talking right past the problem A&M is trying to address, namely that professors at large research-oriented universities have little incentive to focus on the quality of undergraduate education. These are all proposals that would assist a properly motivated professor to improve the quality of his or her instruction. But the do little to change the behavior of either the jaded older faculty member or the harried junior faculty member. Adding a direct financial payoff to effective instruction is a perfectly reasonable idea. But you need a much better measure of “effective instruction.”

For some courses, I’m not sure how you do that. I took a small seminar on Vichy France in college and it seems to me that it would be hard to develop a metric of how well Professor Higonnet did with that—though if you ask me he did extremely well. But I also took a lecture course on optics. The professor was extremely dull and the TA had a questionable command of English. Consequently, both got poor evaluations from me. Also consequently, I missed many more lectures from this class than from any other. And my sections with the TA weren’t very helpful. So my scores on problem sets and exams were consistently bad. And for my meager efforts I was rewarded with not-so-hot grades.

Which is fine. The grading process was an imperfect assessment of my understanding of the subject, but it wasn’t a totally useless one. I clearly deserved a worse grade than some other people in that class, and also deserved a worse grade in that class than I got in some other courses. I got what I deserved. By the same token, if we compare two low-level science lecture courses, and see that one course has consistently higher attendance and students get higher scores on their problem sets and tests and the professor and TAs are getting higher evaluation scores then there are really only two things we can conclude. Maybe one class is offering better instruction, in which case it makes sense to reward the instructors and do something to bring about improvement in the other class. Or maybe one class is offering inappropriately easy tests and problem sets and thereby gaining praise from students without really helping them learn, in which case the curriculum should be made more rigorous. I don’t think it’s obvious exactly what the best way to do this would be, or how you would apply it to all different kinds of coursework. But there are definitely steps in this direction that can and should be taken at the higher education level, just as they should in K-12 education.

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