- Positive evaluations correspond to higher grades. Classes that frequently reward students with substantial high marks receive higher student evaluations. This is troubling for several reasons. First, and this has been pointed out elsewhere, making student evaluations a sole serious metric for bonuses would lead to grade inflation. And if universities need anything right now, it's less incentive for grade inflation. Second, and this is more crucial, I think, is that teachers who structure their classes around frequently rewarding students will be perceived as better teachers. Classes that grade based on more cumulative criteria--say, for example, freshman composition courses, which measure a student's development as a writer over the span of an entire term--give students less of a grade-based incentive for enjoying the course. So depending on the requirements of a given course within a given department, the timing of grades varies.
- Race, gender, and "attractiveness" play a role in student evaluations. Interestingly enough, male teachers that students call "attractive" get better evaluations that female teachers that students call "attractive." Also, the placement of men and women in teaching posts varies from department to department, as does the gender makeup of the students from department to department.
- Electives will, on average, fare better among students than required courses. Required courses have a stigma built in before students even enter the first class meeting: they are the lima beans of the university experience. Take these courses before you can take the courses you want.
- Student evaluations are arbitrary and vary not only by department, but also by course. When I teach composition, I not only keep regular office hours, I require individual conference meetings with students. I also respond to all class-related emails quickly (in my opinion; and I should note, anecdotes are never great evidence). Still, every quarter a handful of students claim I was unavailable outside the classroom. Yet I received nary a peep from these students during the quarter about needing to meet in my office. From what I can tell, the students who claim I wasn't available outside class are those students whose grades aren't very good.
For more on this, follow along at Edge of the American West, which has given Ezra Klein, who supports the bonuses, the corporal punishment he deserves.