Many people love chocolate, but could it change your mind about a professor?
Offering students a piece of chocolate before they evaluate a professor’s performance can greatly skew a student’s opinion for the better, according to a new study created by CSUN assistant professor of psychology, Dr. Robert Youmans, and Dr. Benjamin Jee, a research scientist at Northwestern University.
The study, called “Fudging the numbers,” found that when students were offered a piece of “leftover” chocolate from a stranger who passed out evaluation forms, the students who received chocolate rated their teachers considerably higher than those who hadn’t.
The study was conducted a total of six times at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in three classes that each had two lab sections. Three of the lab sections were offered no chocolate and were used as a control group, while the other three sections were offered chocolate.
The average rating of the chocolate group for all nine questions and ratings, which ranged from one as poor to five as excellent, from the control group to the chocolate group, rose from a 3.85 to a 4.07. Specifically, the statement “instructor is friendly” rose from a 3.9 to a 4.2. The statement, “this course is better than other courses at the university” rose from a 3.6 to a 4.
While completing the study, Youmans posed as a member of the student government, and offered midterm evaluation forms and Hershey’s Miniatures he said had been leftover from a prior event.
“We chose chocolate deliberately,” said Youmans. “We wanted to choose something that would inspire a positive mood. We could have picked a roll of Scotch tape, but we knew the chocolate would inspire happiness.”
Youmans and Jee were both graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago when the idea came to them to conduct the study.
“We noticed that the instructors were passing out chocolate a lot, and we thought, ‘well, that’s not cool – maybe it’s influencing their evaluations,’ ” Youmans said.
As participants in a teaching practicum, the professors used written evaluations to assess their progress.
“We wanted to explore student evaluations, because there has been little research on the topic, and external events are largely uncontrolled when evaluations are collected,” said Jee, now a research scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois.
Evaluations are considered an important method for evaluating a teacher’s success and progress.
“They’re very important, especially for teachers who don’t have tenure yet,” said Youmans. “A lot of professors are against evaluations, and think that evaluations don’t reflect how good of a teacher they are.
“We think there is something to evaluations. They can be pushed around, and they can be manipulated, but I think they are a reliable and variable measure.”
The “Fudging the numbers” study could be a look at why evaluations might differ.
“We’re only trying to positively push evaluations – You can imagine a horrible test, and how that negative mood could affect evaluations,” said Youmans.
Youmans said that administration does take into account the difficulty of the subject and course, and they recognize that a statistics professor may not be as well-liked as an art professor.
Youmans and Jee carefully reviewed the grades in the classes they studied, to make sure they were all similar. If there was a large disparity in grades, it could have greatly skewed the results.
The survey shows that student evaluations of professors may not be as objective as officials thought. Professors who use candy before evaluations could be unintentionally “fudging the numbers” of their own performance, but some students are insistent that their opinions wouldn’t change.
“The attitude of the teachers really matters,” said Action Lavitch, a sophomore CTVA student. “I’m usually honest with my evaluations. I’m strong on my first impressions.”
Some students who said that they wouldn’t change their minds if offered candy, think again and realize their opinions could change.
“If I think they suck, I am going to really say it,” said Alex Bromberg, a sophomore CTVA student. “If I think you’re a bad teacher, regardless of how much food you give me, I’m going to say it. But I do love food.”
“I know that evaluations are often completed in the last class (of the semester), and that some instructors (especially for smaller classes) bring in treats for students on the last day,” said Jee. “They may be getting a benefit on their evaluations from this.
“I certainly don’t want to discourage professors from bringing in treats for their students. I just think that student evaluations should be administered in a controlled context.”
“Fudging the Numbers: Distributing Chocolate Influences Student Evaluations of an Undergraduate Course,” is expected to appear in the fall edition of the journal Teaching of Psychology.
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