How Students Destroyed BYU Religious Education

How Students Destroyed BYU Religious Education June 22, 2010

From what I understand from teachers and students there, it is not an understatement to say that student evaluations are the most important factor in hiring at BYU’s religious education. Degrees and scholarship are nice, but student evaluations are king. Many a qualified young scholar has seen their hopes of teaching at BYU religion dashed by the low marks received in teaching. The overvaluation of the student evaluation leads to easier curriculum, rewards form over content, and encourages grade inflation. Stanley Fish, an influential scholar and NYT contributor on education, offers another important reason to be suspicious of student evaluations. In today’s Times, he makes the case that education, unlike a meal served in a restaurant, has a different time horizon that cannot be fully assessed at the end of a course:

‘Deferred judgment’ or ‘judgment in the fullness of time’ seems to be appropriate to the evaluation of teaching. And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.

From many reports from students and teachers in BYU religion, Fish offers a pretty accurate description of the problems BYU religious education faces. The idea of the gospel “neatly laid out,” unwelcome to “multiple perspectives,” with a strong “master perspective” and the assertion of definitive “answers” seems to describe the state of BYU religion. It is no coincidence that the world Fish sees as the consequence of overvaluing student evaluations is the world BYU religion already occupies, since it has long embraced them as the only real valuable tool for assessing the quality of its teaching. The obtaining of good student evaluations by teaching in the summer at BYU religion is considered, as I understand it, to be just as important as all of the other qualifications one brings, combined!

The weight of teaching evaluations at colleges and universities is a point of controversy in the academy at all levels of higher education, yet BYU religion faces a particular challenge which causes them to weight them especially high, essentially to the exclusion of other academic virtues. Perhaps it is because degrees and scholarship have not been central to Religious Education, student evaluations are especially important there as the only real standard for measuring quality. Training, precision, consistency, and depth are evaluated only in terms of student perception of these qualities.

Yet, this neatly laid out pedagogy does not reflect the complexity of the gospel, its message, or the real world. While religion teachers there enjoy high student satisfaction ratings from their early-20’s, pre- and post-mission attendees, it is rare to hear someone in their late 20’s recall the bulk of their religion classes with satisfaction. I think that part of the reason is exactly what Fish points out, that the challenges of education cannot be accurately assessed in the last week of a class, but is better appreciated with greater maturity and perspective. The invective against the “theological twinkie” remains in the discourse of BYU religion, yet all of the incentives for getting hired there encourage the dolling out of these empty calories.

I acknowledge that it is essentially impossible to evaluate teaching effectiveness on this long horizon when it comes to the realities of hiring new professors. Yet, we must not imagine that teaching evaluations are the only way, nor that other qualifications should not be weighted more highly than they currently are. What kinds of standards for good teaching could we imagine that would strengthen the quality of instruction at BYU, and incentivize impactful education for the long term?

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