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Rating Teachers is Educational Seduction

One of the most interesting studies I’ve come across is the case of Dr. Myron L. Fox.

Dr. Fox, an authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior, presented a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education” to a group of highly trained educators. These educators were then asked to rate Dr. Fox’s lecture for educational content. Would a group of highly trained educators give the appropriate rating to Dr. Fox?

Only problem? The lecture was rigged from the start. The real goal of the study was to see if an “an experienced group of educators participating in a new learning situation can feel satisfied that they have learned despite irrelevant, conflicting, and meaningless content conveyed by the lecturer.”

That’s right, Dr. Fox was a fraud—an actor designed to look distinguished and sound authoritative. His source material was nothing more than a sufficiently understandable scientific article intended for lay readers. Dr. Fox was coached to present his topic with “an excessive use of double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements.” All of this was to be “interspersed with parenthetical humor and meaningless references to unrelated topics.”

It turns out that student ratings of educators depend largely on personality variables and not educational content.

But we can take this a little further.

Consider the case of Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a computer science professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who recently caught at least 20% of his students cheating.

Ipeirotis confronted his students and by the end of the semester 22 of the 108 students in his class had admitted to cheating on assignments. Doing what any educator should do, Ipeirotis levied poor grades on the students who cheated.

But in a classroom students have the power. “When it came time to fill out teacher evaluations, the students hit their professor hard, and his average rating went down about a point. As a result, the newly-tenured professor received the lowest annual salary increase he has ever gotten, and the school specifically cited the lower evaluation score, he says.”

So, what an interesting incentive system this is: (1) teacher pay is driven, at least in part, by student ratings; (2) student ratings can be manipulated by reducing educational content and focusing on being “liked”; and (3) teachers who catch students cheating can be punished by those very students.

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