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(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., Oct. 10, 2007) — Can the simple offer of chocolate from a stranger change the way students view their professors, particularly at evaluation time?
The answer is yes, according to a soon-to-be published study by Cal State Northridge assistant professor of psychology Robert Youmans and Benjamin D. Jee, a researcher at Northwestern University. Their study, “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.
"What we were looking at was whether outside influences could affect a situation where people like to believe they are being fair and even-handed in judging something or someone, in this case giving an evaluation of a professor," Youmans said. "But the implications of what we found could go beyond the classroom. Who knows how news about something like what happened at Abu Ghraib prison affected the decisions people made that day?"
The idea for the study grew from a conversation between Youmans, who joined CSUN’s faculty in August, and Jee while they were both graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both were taking a teaching practicum and speculated about how student evaluations of their teaching would impact their futures.
"Student evaluations of a professor have major influence on what happens to the professor’s career—whether a university or college chooses to retain him, give him tenure and even teaching assignments," Youmans said. "We began wondering if outside influences could affect how students rated a professor. People pride themselves in being fair and objective when they are asked to give an assessment of someone else’s performance, such as evaluating a professor. But what if they really aren’t being objective? What if something else could influence their judgments?"
To test their theory, Youmans visited undergraduate classes with laboratory sections, study sections led by a teaching assistant that drew students from a larger lecture into two smaller groups. In one group, Youmans passed out the evaluations and collected them when the students were finished. In the second group, when it was time for the students to assess their professor’s performance, Youmans repeated what was done in the first class, except he offered the students chocolate, saying it was leftover from a prior event, while passing out the evaluations.
Youmans and Jee repeated the experiment in three different classes, and each time the result was the same: the groups that received the offer of chocolate gave their professors higher ratings than the groups that were not offered candy, even though students from either group were rating a class and instructor that they had experienced together.
"I should point out that not everyone in the classes offered chocolate took the candy. Also, we made it clear in all the classes that we were not affiliated with the professor, just ‘strangers’ asked to pass out and retrieve the evaluations," Youmans said. "But we found that the good feelings brought on by the offer of chocolate from a complete stranger, even in those students who didn’t accept the candy, affected the professors’ evaluations in a positive way."
At the very least, Youmans said, the study offers a caution to university officials as they consider student evaluations of professors. “They should be aware that the evaluations may not be as objective as they would like them to be, and should keep in mind a bad experience—say a horrible test in the class before—may affect how the students rate the professor who had the misfortune to have his class follow the test," he said.
"But really, this could be much bigger than just chocolate," Youmans said. "The implications are that bad news, such as the stuff about what happened at Abu Ghraib prison, or something as simple as a kind gesture by a stranger can affect how people react or make decisions later."
California State University, Northridge has 35,200 full- and part-time students and offers 62 bachelor’s and 50 master’s degrees as well as 28 teaching credential programs. Founded in 1958, CSUN is among the largest single-campus universities in the nation and the only four-year public university in the San Fernando Valley. The university serves as the intellectual, economic and cultural heart of the Valley and beyond.
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