Section 6.4.3 Module, Stage, or Programme

Section 6.4.3 Module, Stage, or Programme

Section 6.4.3 Module, Stage, or Programme

Despite the intention of SET to improve the quality and standards of teaching within Higher Education, there are several negative consequences of SET that have the reverse effect.

One issue is related to increasing managerialist or consumerist approach to higher education mentioned in Section 6.1. Blackmore (2009) refers to the ‘web of quality assurance, performance management, and promotion practices’ which are contrary to the traditional educational ethos of improvement for the sake of improvement, and the reduction of teaching and learning to quantifiable administrative tasks and procedures.

In this context SET becomes a tool to monitor and control staff, without providing any developmental information on exactly which aspects of their teaching/module students may have issue with and how this may be addressed. Consequently, as Penny (2004) reports, academics have complained that SET is less about development and more about a politically expedient performance measure for quality monitoring.

The second way in which SET adversely affects quality is due to grade inflation.

In many North American universities decisions for salary or promotion increases are based predominantly on SETs (Grimes, Millea, & Woodroff, 2004), assuming these ratings to act as a proxy for teaching quality (Langbein, 2008). Consequently, because of the pressure associated with securing higher evaluations lecturers may be tempted to be lenient with students to ensure good evaluations (Brown, 2008). This process has been referred to as grade inflation, i.e., greater grading leniency or tendency to award higher grades in the hope of higher student ratings.

This positive correlation between grades and SET scores, with higher (expected) grades giving higher ratings has been reported many times in literature (Blackhart, peruche, DeWall, & Joiner, 2006; Marsh & Roche, 1997; 2000) and has been found to persist across differences in prior interest in the subject, student motivation, level of course, class size, differences in grading norms across academic disciplines, demographic variations, and differences in student grade expectations (Johnson, 2003).

For example, in one study researchers reported that 22% of teachers admitted to ‘giving easy courses to ensure your popularity with students’ (Tabachnick, Keith-Speigel, & Pope, 1991).

The negative conations grade inflation are huge – impacting on the quality of teaching, modules offered, the credibility of the lecturer and the institution, and invalidating the entire SET. As Strathern (1997) notes, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

The issue of grade inflation is particularly relevant in Ireland at present, where a recent report has suggested significant grade inflation in Irish universities, with an increase in number of first-class honours degrees awarded in 2004 and 2008 ranging from 167% to 900% (Walshe, 2010).

Activity 6.4.3

What can be done to prevent/limit threats to the credibility and validity of the process presented by grade inflation?

Submit your answers


Langbein, L. (2008). Management by results: Student evaluation of faculty teaching and the mis-measurement of performance. Economics of Education Review, 27(4), 417-428

Blackmore, J. (2009). Academic pedagogies, quality logics and performative universities: evaluating teaching and what students want. Studies in Higher Education, 34(8), 857–872

Walshe, J. (2010, 2nd March). O'Keeffe orders probe as college scores 900pc inflation in grades. Irish Independent. Accessed from

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