University College Tilburg

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Are Senior Teachers Really Mellow?

Author: Jeroen Stekelenburg

In a recent core staff meeting of LAS we discussed whether PhD students were allowed to grade a bachelor thesis. After a short exchange of views we all agreed that they were perfectly able to assess the quality of a thesis and the topic was quickly declared a non-issue. But, what I found quite noteworthy in the debate was the final remark by one of our core staff members that in the end there was really no issue because young lecturers tend to be more strict in grading anyway than more senior lecturers.

The idea that there is a relationship between seniority and grades was put to the test – by coincidence – a week after the core staff meeting during a so-called ‘thesis calibration’ session. The goal of this session was to find out whether examiners have a shared understanding of the criteria needed for a certain grade. To this end, core staff members independently graded the same thesis. In line with the earlier remark of the core staff member, the most senior lecturer indeed rated the thesis the highest!

This notion of age dependent grading is something that pops up once in a while during my ‘career’ at Tilburg University and raises a couple of questions. The first is whether there is some truth in it or whether it is only a based on anecdotal evidence. Second, if it is real, what might be the cause? Is it inherently related to age that we become somehow more ‘mellow’ with time? If so, shouldn’t we correct the grades of the thesis according to age, e.g. minus 0.2 points per decade? Or, third, do grades rise with repeated evaluations by some psychological mechanism, independent of age?

These questions were addressed by O’Conner and Cheema1 in a recent paper in Psychological Science in which they gathered the grade point averages (GPA) of 991 university courses where lecturers offered a course over several semesters. It was found that across a 10-year period the average grades gradually increased with successive offerings of a course by the same lecturer. Interestingly, they also report that the scores given by the permanent judges on the tv show ’Dancing With the Stars’ steadily increased over 20 years. Although this shows that evaluations do indeed rise with experience, the underlying process cannot be uncovered by these findings. Therefore, the authors directly manipulated repeated evaluations (i.e. experience) and found that evaluations of randomly ordered short stories rated by college students became more positive over a 2-week sequence. The students reported that the process of evaluating stories became easier over time (fluency). Fluency mediated the increase in grading (however, when asked, the students firmly denied that this was the case). O’Conner and Cheema argue that sequential evaluation causes assessors to feel more fluent which unwittingly leads to misattribution to the content of the to-be-evaluated work itself.

We may thus conclude that lecturers do not necessarily become more mellow with increasing age, but that the evaluation process itself may eventually introduce a positive bias to student’s work. Knowing all this, can this progression of favorable evaluations be stopped? According to O’Conner and Cheema if one understands the process underlying the perverse effects of fluency the positive bias can be diminished or even reversed. Alternatively, we may introduce a system in which a course is taught by the same lecturer for a limited number of years (max. 4 years: keeps things fresh!).

 

1O’Connor, K., & Cheema, A. (2018). Do evaluations rise with experience? Psychological Science, 29, 779–790.