According to the study, one possible reason for a decline in academic rigor and, consequentially, in writing and reasoning skills, is that the principal evaluation of faculty performance comes from student evaluations at the end of the semester. Those evaluations, Arum says, tend to coincide with the expected grade that the student thinks he or she will receive from the instructor.
"There's a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high," Arum says.
I'm glad it's a real study, or we'd all be saying, "thank you, Captain Obvious."
Seriously, though, student evaluation numbers are the primary way in which a lot of us have our teaching evaluated. We (or our administrators) have canonized those numbers and granted them a lot more power than they had when student evaluations began back in the 1970s. Isn't it logical to assume that in situations where those numbers have the most power, the temptation will be the greatest to massage the assignments into something that's student-friendly or at least complaint-proof?
I'd like to see some study like the following: take instructors of comparable rank and teaching ability (as measured by observation, etc.) who are teaching similar kinds of content, maybe a large required course where the instructors don't have to use the same materials. Half of them don't have to have student evaluations at all, or maybe they have evaluations that are locked away for the period of the experiment so that administrators can't see them. Follow both groups for 5 years or so, judging teaching in one group solely by observations, self-report, and review of course materials. At the end of that time, see if there's a demonstrable difference in student learning and academic rigor.
I know this probably couldn't be done (and isn't a scientific design, of course), but if we're going to "assess outcomes," shouldn't we also be assessing one of the primary if not the only means by which we evaluate teachers?