Students Aren’t Consumers

Larry Hubbell

In many areas of the economy, higher standards work to improve sales. In academia, it’s the reverse. Thus the student as consumer has become part of academic decline. The classroom differs considerably from the university’s various housekeeping and recreational services. When the student is resident in the classroom, he is a learner, not a consumer. The challenge in this scenario is keeping the consumer side and the academic side of the student experience distinct. Unfortunately, “creeping consumerism” has inched into the academic side, namely in grade inflation; student evaluations, which weigh heavily in faculty retention and promotion; the tendency by students to regard syllabi as contracts; and the expectation among many students that their instructors should provide study guides to their courses. All of these developments further commodify the student experience of higher education.

Student as Customer Infiltrates the Classroom

Grade Inflation

In a survey of approximately one hundred public and private colleges and universities, Stuart Rojstaczer, professor of environmental science at Duke and founder of Gradeinflation.com, found that the average grade point average (GPA) at these schools increased by 0.18 or from 2.93 to 3.11 between 1991–1992 and 2006–2007. This reflects a long-term trend in which GPAs have been increasing between 0.1 and 0.2 per decade.1

There has been much handwringing in academia over this phenomenon. It puts administrators in a bind. On the one hand, they are generally dedicated to making their institutions more customer-oriented, while on the other hand, by doing so they contribute to grade inflation and the lowering of academic standards. Some administrators are sending a mixed message: Be compliant with student needs, but hold the line on what is perhaps their most important need—good grades. For example, my own former dean at the University of Wyoming, in an attempt to quell the increase in the school’s collective GPA, at the end of each semester distributed what he called the Grade Differential Index, or GDI. This numerical compilation compared the average grade of all students in a particular class with the sum total of all grades those same students had accumulated throughout their academic careers. The presumption seemed to be that if an instructor’s grades for a particular course were higher than his students’ collective GPAs that he was somehow not adequately maintaining academic standards. Although the dean did not, to my knowledge, ever follow up his data with administrative action, it was an application of not-so-subtle pressure upon the faculty to tamp down grade inflation somewhat. Given his penchant for trying to satisfy his student customers, however, it was a confusing message to send to the faculty.

Indeed, some academics and administrators seem to imply that high grades are reflective of a moral failing among their colleagues at large. As one administrator noted,

Grade inflation in higher education is a much talked-about problem. Having been in academe for 13 years as an instructor and now as an administrator, I have heard nearly all my past and present colleagues, as well as many of the instructors who teach at my institution, complain about it. Most (dare I say all?) of those with whom I have had this conversation swear they don’t give undeserved grades.2

Yet the phenomenon persists. Where is the disconnect? Someone is doing it.

Others see grade inflation as the inevitable consequence of a slow shift in power from the professor to the student within the classroom. According to one professor:

After years of increasingly urging efforts beating increasingly insecure faculty over the head with teaching evaluations; the necessity of lowering drop-failure-withdrawal rates, increasing retention rates, and teaching the students we have and not those we wish we had; learning outcomes; assessment plans; and minutely detailed, down-to-the hour syllabi with carefully calibrated worksheets, exercises and study guides, do the deans really not understand why grades have gone up? Indeed, rather than worrying, they should instead give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.3

Student Evaluations

Closely related to grade inflation are student evaluations. For the first time, grade inflation began to surge in the 1960s, when student evaluations became popular on campus. Indeed, during the 1960s average GPAs showed their most rapid increase, rising by approximately 0.3.4 Student evaluations, which at first were “lighthearted dope sheet[s] for the use of students,” have been part of the institutional fabric of colleges and universities since the 1970s.5 Although ostensibly providing feedback to instructors regarding their teaching, student evaluations also play a much more important role: providing data used in tenure and promotion. San Diego State University Language Center director Francisco Zabaleta suggests other methods to evaluate teaching effectiveness, namely teaching portfolios, in-class peer observations, and self-evaluations, many of which are employed in universities throughout the country.6 Although these methods may provide a broader picture of the professor under evaluation, they do not provide a numerical score, a metric, which cannot be underestimated in a profession and in a society that embraces positivism and the explanatory power of numbers.

Studies of the statistical relationship between an expected grade and student evaluations are mixed. Kenneth A. Feldman, professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, found that most studies concluded that there was a .10 and .30 positive correlation between expected grades and course evaluations.7 In his review of the literature on this topic, Bowie State University mathematics professor Howard K. Wachtel found there was a moderate positive correlation between expected grade and student ratings.8 Finally, Lawrence M. Aleamoni, professor emeritus of disability and psychoeducational studies at the University of Arizona, found a median correlation of .014 in a survey of thirty-seven studies.9 Although correlations between a student’s expected grade and a student evaluation are low, perhaps the more important question is, do instructors perceive there is a correlation? And does the perceived fear of getting low student evaluations spur some professors to inflate their grades, specifically within a broader environment that encourages consumer satisfaction? This data is largely anecdotal, but it is certainly in the back of some professors’ minds, particularly the more vulnerable, untenured ones. As Ohio University marketing professors Jane Sojka, Ashok K. Gupta, and Dawn Deeter-Schmelz note in a survey of eighty-one faculty members, 43 percent either strongly agreed or agreed with the following statement: “Student evaluations can seriously jeopardize the career of a professor.”10

How many adjuncts, who serve as at-will employees, have been not rehired because they received student evaluations below the norm? How many assistant professors have not received tenure because they were found wanting by their students? How many associate and full professors have been humiliated by subpar student evaluations or hurt during a post-tenure review process?

Aside from the bias of a student’s perceived grade, student evaluations contain other biases. For example, China Medical University professors Qiao Min and Sun Baozhi found that students in smaller classes gave higher student evaluations than students in larger classes.11 A study by Weber State University psychology professors Julianne Arbuckle and Benne D. Williams indicated that younger instructors received higher evaluations than older instructors.12 And University of Kansas sociology professors Joey Sprague and Kelley Massoni determined that students have a preference for female instructors who are warm and male instructors who are humorous.13 University of Nevada sociology professor Markus Kemmelmeier, Wabash College research fellow Cherry Danielson, and University of Michigan kinesiology professor Jay Basten found that students give lower student evaluations to instructors whose political views differed from their own.14 Finally, in their study, University of North Texas economics professors Michael A. McPherson and R. Todd Jewell determined that non-white faculty fare less well in student evaluations than white faculty.15

Course Syllabi

In the past, the syllabus typically provided students with basic information regarding course content and an instructor’s expectations. In recent years, however, most syllabi have become longer, trying, according to Case Western Reserve physics professor Mano Singham, “to cover almost every eventuality.”16 Although much of the information contained in the current syllabus is useful and informative, its sheer length may lead the student to ignore parts of it. For example, at the beginning of the semester my former institution, the University of Wyoming (UW), requires each instructor to provide students

  • a copy of a syllabus via either hard copy or electronically

  • a course description, “including its purpose, content, and goals”

  • what university requirements the course fulfills

  • course meeting times and/or schedule

  • instructor office hours and contact information

  • grading and attendance policies

  • general requirements and expectations for the course

  • a list of required materials

  • a statement/reference to the University Disability Support Services website

  • academic dishonesty policies with a statement/reference to university regulations on student academic dishonesty17

In addition to providing course-related information, a syllabus offers students their first opportunity to evaluate an instructor. As Western Kentucky University communications professor Blair Thompson notes, “Beyond the content of the document itself, how the syllabus is presented is critical. As a symbolic message, the presentation of the syllabus communicates what the teacher is like as a person and instructor, contributes to students’ first impression of the teacher, and sets the tone for the course.”18

Considering the amount of syllabus information UW requires, one might get the impression that although as a professor I was thorough, I was also fearful that my students might initiate litigation against me if any of them perceived to have been unfairly treated during my course. Syllabi at UW as well as at institutions throughout the country increasingly resemble contracts. This tendency is reinforced in the academic literature. University of Nebraska education psychology professors Jay Parkes and Mary B. Harris, and Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Cliff I. Davidson and Northeastern University education professor Susan A. Ambrose explicitly describe the syllabus as a contract.19 Duquesne University management professors L. Matejka and L.B. Kurke not only write that the syllabus is an important “legal” document, they also suggest that each syllabus include this statement: “I have read this syllabus, understand the implications (and have sought clarification for those parts that were unclear to me) and will abide by it (Signature).”20 Although this example may be extreme, the transformation of the syllabus into a contract further serves to change the nature of the relationship between teacher and student from mentor guiding mentee to contractor serving customer. When that transformation occurs, the relationship is degraded.

Study Guides

During my twenty-five-year career as a professor, I have noticed a sizeable increase in student “demand” for study guides. I can’t recall receiving a single such request during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I began teaching on the college level, whereas today the demand for study guides approaches a roar. I have somewhat accommodated these requests by distributing copies of my PowerPoint presentations to students, which can serve as a kind of study guide for the objective parts of my examinations.

There is considerable support in the literature for study guides. For example, University of Dundee Centre for Medical Education director Ronald M. Harden notes that study guides are a powerful tool to assist students in their learning.21 Jennifer M. Laidlaw and E. Anne Hesketh, University of Dundee Medical School instructors, indicate that study guides can communicate to students what is expected of them in the curriculum.22 University of Dundee School of Medicine professor Shihab E.O. Khogali, Laidlaw, and Harden write that the value of study guides “has increasingly been recognized with the greater emphasis now placed on student-centered learning.”23 Northern Arizona University psychology professors K. Laurie Dickson, Michelle D. Miller, and Michael S. Devoley conducted a controlled experiment regarding study guides and found that their research “supports the effectiveness of a published study guide in an introductory psychology course that uses multiple-choice exams.”24

Among students, study guides are popular because they presumably allow students to reduce a course’s substance to its essence. Many study guides attempt to answer the perennial question students ask their instructors: What is on the exam? And as customers, don’t students have the right to know?

Nevertheless, there are two reasons why I find study guides to be highly problematic. First, they contribute to the tendency that students will learn and that instructors will teach primarily those elements of a subject most likely to be on the exam. And the elements of a subject that are likely to be on the exam are the elements valued by the student-customer. Indeed, study guides further reinforce among the many students who in elementary and high school were subject to a similar regimen as a result of No Child Left Behind. Education should not simply focus on how to get from A to B, but also encourage students to question why they should get from A to B. In other words, educators should aim to expand their students’ boundaries, not simply facilitate their success at answering multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests.

Second, study guides are indicative of a much broader phenomenon that is also linked to the student as customer, namely the “massification” of higher education. As Philip G. Altbach, Liz Reisberg, and Laura E. Rumbley, all members of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, note:

A central phenomenon of 21st-century higher education is massification—the tremendous expansion of enrollments that have taken place worldwide in the past 30 years. The percentage of the traditional-age cohort enrolled in tertiary education globally has grown from 19 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2007.25

As higher education becomes less an activity reserved for a relatively small coterie of students, perhaps it is inevitable that further dumbing-down of standards and requirements will occur. Study guides, which attempt to lead students through the complexities of a subject, are an example of this tendency and a service highly valued by the student who perceives himself as a customer.

Conclusion

As students are presented with more choices throughout their young lives, it is inevitable that colleges and universities will embrace the practices of the private sector as they vie for their education dollars. The college experience should be focused on the pursuit of learning, not customer satisfaction. That pursuit is hindered when professors become purveyors and the students become buyers. Now that unabashed consumerism has infiltrated the college experience—from extravagant dining options to elaborate dormitory living—it may seem inevitable that classrooms across campus will subscribe to the pervasive customer consciousness. Nevertheless, those loyal to the cause of learning must resist that pull.

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