Peer pressure, or, I thought I was out of high school!

Hello everyone!

I am delighted with the responses to the Ethicist posts—both on the site and to me personally. Thanks for your energy and insights.

An Academy member sent me a very interesting scenario he has been facing that should resonate with many, not only in our field but with those following trends in academe as a whole. I have experienced a version of it myself just this semester. Consider this:

For the past 10 years, you’ve taught a required course you like. You’re effective at teaching this course, too: in the first several years, your course evaluations were very high and other student feedback indicated that they loved your course. However, although you manage the course in essentially the same way as you have since the beginning, and your teaching style has not changed dramatically for the worse, your course evaluations have become not so great. The reason behind this is that your students now evaluate your course’s workload as much too heavy, especially in relation to others who teach the course. When you first were teaching the course and got great evaluations, over 90% of students evaluated your course’s workload as “appropriate.” Over time, you now earn that evaluation metric from only 20% of students.

For students considering taking your course, the word on the street is that you are a very difficult instructor and your course carries an inappropriately rough workload. So, along with decreasing student evaluation numbers, you’re also facing fewer students in your section and resentful colleagues, all in the context of a dramatically increased institutional focus on student retention. You consider your assignment load completely appropriate for the course material.

As you puzzled over your change in evaluation fortunes, you reviewed syllabi from colleagues who also teach this course and found out that, based on similar student feedback, they had been gradually decreasing the workload in their courses. It appears that other sections of this course now require only a group presentation (without a corresponding written assignment) and one multiple choice exam at the end of the course. Indeed, you do have the heaviest workload now out of anyone teaching that course, although there is nothing out of the ordinary in your assignment mix: multiple writing assignments, group written project, and two essay/short answer exams.

What do you do?

I would dare say we are all facing pressures to keep student numbers up, whether we’re at tuition-dependent institutions or those with state-funded incentives for each student matriculated. At the same time, various stakeholders are demanding assurance of learning data and high quality teaching environments. There may be some seriously competing goals working here and if you think you’re hearing mixed messages, you are not alone. The conflicting values are an ethical dilemma that deserves our attention: lower standards but increase student satisfaction and your course evaluations? Maintain stakeholder-soothing rigor but risk continued poor course evaluations that may have seriously negative impacts on your overall performance appraisals? Give in to peer pressure and mirror their lower standards, but harbor your own gloom over what you believe is a personal values compromise?

The choice our colleague faces above is more complex than whether he should simply lower course requirements to match others teaching the course. There are a bunch of things going on here, such as the growing link between student grade expectations and our course evaluations and an increasing emphasis on market-based “currency” exchanges like satisfaction and retention. All seem to track back to watershed changes within higher education as a whole. Many have already written with alarm about the increasing corporatization of higher education; I experience the dilemma above as yet another manifestation of the “student as customer” metaphor used so frequently, and without irony. When learning becomes an exchange agreement, whether explicit or implicit, and administrative structures like reward systems change to accommodate it, we are in trouble. Marcis and Burney (2010), in their study of cognitive biases at play when students’ expectations of grades do not match actual performance, describe the current academic environment as one “…in which the potentially conflicting goals of maintaining academic rigor, maximizing student retention, and maintaining student satisfaction are advanced” (p. 32). And these conflicts are here to stay.

As I mentioned above, I had a similar experience just this semester. I administer a midterm evaluation in my courses, and students in my capstone strategy section indicated that my workload was “crazy” and out of touch with their other responsibilities. My initial reaction to this was, “We’re an AACSB business school and this is your senior-level CAPSTONE course! Suck it up!!” Later on, of course, I reacted more functionally, but certainly that feedback gave me pause about what they might say on my end-of-term evaluations that matter, and caused me to think about my options.

Similar to what I see when examining almost any ethical dilemma, the choices initially seem binary. Dilemmas seem to lend themselves to ‘either—or’ thinking: I either cave in and lower my course requirements, OR, I will get poor evaluations. Although the choices seem binary, they are not.  In my situation, I asked the three other instructors who teach our capstone course for their syllabi to see my course requirements in context. What I found was that I require different assignments, but not fewer overall. Armed with this information, we had a very helpful midterm evaluation debrief discussion that included their anxiety over earning poorer grades as seniors than they had as underclassmen, and my concern about the grades—evaluation exchange. The worry, it turns out, was about their own performance insecurities, not really about my workload.

For our colleague above, how about a meeting among all of the instructors of the course to hammer out some shared expectations and requirements? How about a frank conversation with students where these implicit exchanges become open for discussion? How about telling students the ‘why’ of rigor in college courses, and helping them see that holding them to tougher standards is not punishment, but a sign of truly caring about their learning? What about sharing a personal story of when we were held to what we thought was an ‘impossible’ standard, only to find enormous confidence in our abilities later on because of it?

There are forces at work that may unintentionally pit us against our students, to cause us to forget that our students are not our enemies. Students may be increasingly objectified as mis-aligned with the educational enterprise as a whole. As I invited comments from the Ethics Education Committee on a draft of this blog, several members commented that they experience this issue, but only on an undergraduate level. Graduate students seem to accept the ‘rigor is good!!’ paradigm much better than undergrads. This has generally been my experience, but I must say I have had some MBAs reject that idea just as vigorously as the undergrads!

I invite your comments. What have your experiences been in this context? Is this trending accurate for undergraduate education, or graduate students too? What have you done when you have encountered this situation? Relatedly, what substitutes might we have for the “student as customer” metaphor that may change our conversation?

Tune in next time for a discussion about the “how” of having difficult conversations with students, about this and other issues!

Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

1 thought on “Peer pressure, or, I thought I was out of high school!”

  1. Great blog Kathy; a very common situation no doubt. I think it comes down to the strength of the individual and whether they can hold to their convictions against student and collegial pressure. At the end of the day, we chose our battles, and I suspect, most educators over time, get worn down and bend to institutional and system related pressures/reinforcers/punishers.

    I have had to lower my expectations since commencing my role, and this wasn’t in relation to peer pressure or student ratings, but simply identifying that not all students were at University for the intrinsic reasons I came for. There are only a handful of students in each of my courses who are there because they really love learning. Most are there to get their ticket. I have had to redesign my courses to cater for that type of motivational level. I used to think this was lowering the standards, I now think of it as adapting to learning needs!!

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