New research presented at this year's Euroanaesthesia congress in Copenhagen, Denmark and due for publication in the journal Medical Education shows that teachers who reward their students with chocolate cookies can score significantly better in evaluation surveys. The study is by Dr Christina Massoth and Dr Manuel Wenk together with colleagues at Department of Anaesthesiology, Intensive Care and Pain Medicine, University Hospital of Muenster, Muenster, Germany.
End-of-course evaluation of teaching (SETs) surveys are widely used and taken seriously by faculties, forming part of the decision making process for the recruitment of academics, distribution of funds, and changes to educational curricula. There is some doubt, however, as to whether this type of evaluation method can accurately measure the quality of course material and the extent to which important knowledge is transferred.
This study investigated whether a simple intervention by the teacher in the form of the provision of chocolate cookies to their students, could influence SET results in a significant way.
The team conducted a randomised, controlled trial using a group of 118 undergraduate third year medical students who were randomly allocated into 20 groups. During the first of four sessions of a curricular emergency course, 10 of the groups were each given 500g of chocolate cookies to share, while the other 10 groups made up the control and received nothing. Afterwards, all the students completed a 38 question evaluation survey which asked them about the teacher, course contents, teaching materials, and self-assessment.
The authors found that those groups who had received cookies evaluated their teachers as being significantly better than those who received nothing. They also considered their teaching materials to be better, and their summation scores for the overall quality of the course were significantly higher than those of the control group. All the results were statistically significant.
These findings fit in with other research that has described factors associated with better evaluation results such as grading leniency, environmental factors, or the attractiveness of a teacher. The authors note that: "Consequently, a higher student satisfaction does not necessarily correlate with a higher quality of education".
The team conclude that something as simple as giving out chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation. They suggest that: "These findings question the validity of SETs when used to make widespread decisions within the faculty". The authors go on to point out that: "On the upside, our findings may stimulate new ideas for teachers who seek to improve and control their SETs by manipulating food-related interventions".
Dr Wenk notes that while this research may appear light-hearted at first glance, he cautions that: "Students' end-of-course feedback and evaluation of teaching and teachers (SET) has become a standard tool for measuring 'quality' of curricular high-grade education courses. The results of these evaluations often form the basis for far-reaching decisions by the academic faculty, such as changes to the curriculum, the promotion of teachers, the tenure of academic appointments, the distribution of funds and merit pay, and the choice of staff. So this is a totally inadequate tool to measure quality if you can mess with the system that easily!"