By Doug Ward
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Faculty members seem ready for a more substantive approach to evaluating teaching, but…
It’s that “but” that about 30 faculty members from three Bay View Alliance universities focused on at a mini-conference here in late February. All are part of a project called TEval, which is working to develop a richer model of teaching evaluation by helping departments change their teaching culture. The project, funded by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant, involves faculty members from KU, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Michigan State. TEval is an initiative of the BVA’s Research Action Cluster 4.
The evaluation of teaching has long centered on student surveys, which are fraught with biases and emphasize the performance aspects of teaching over student learning. Their ease of administration and ability to produce a number that can be compared to a department average have made them popular with university administrators and instructors alike. Those numbers certainly offer a tidy package that is delivered semester to semester with little or no time required of the instructor. And though the student voice needs to be a part of the evaluation process, response rates to end-of-semester surveys have dropped considerably as the surveys have moved online. More importantly, the surveys fail to capture the intellectual work and complexity involved in high-quality teaching, something that more and more universities have begun to recognize.
The TEval project is working with partner departments to revamp that entrenched process. Doing so, though, requires additional time, work and thought. It requires instructors to document the important elements of their teaching – elements that have often been taken for granted – to reflect on that work in meaningful ways, and to produce a plan for improvement. It requires evaluation committees to invest time in learning about instructors, courses and curricula, and to work through portfolios rather than reducing teaching to a single number and a single class visit, a process that tends to clump everyone together into a meaningless above-average heap.
That’s the where the “but …” comes into play. Teaching has long been a second-class citizen in the rewards system of research universities, leading many instructors and administrators to chafe at the idea of spending more time documenting and evaluating teaching. As with so many aspects of university life, though, real change can come about only if we are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen.
Instructors and department leaders involved in the TEval project have agreed to make the time. The goal is to refine the evaluation process, share trials and experiences, create a palette of best practices, and find pathways that others can follow.
At the meeting here in Charlotte, participants talked about the many challenges that lie ahead:
- University policies that fail to reward teaching, innovation, or efforts to change culture.
- An evaluation system based on volume: number of students taught, numbers on student surveys, number of teaching awards.
- Recalcitrant faculty who resist changing a system that has long rewarded selfishness and who show no interest in reframing teaching as a shared endeavor.
- Administrators who refuse to give faculty the time they need to engage in a more effective evaluation system.
- Tension between treating evaluations as formative (a means of improving teaching) and evaluative (a means of determining merit raises and promotions).
- Agreeing on what constitutes evidence of high-quality teaching.
Finding ways to move forward
By the end of the meeting, though, a hopeful spirit seemed to emerge as cross-campus conversations led to ideas for moving the process forward:
- Tapping into the desire that most faculty have for seeing their students succeed.
- Working with small groups to build momentum in many departments.
- Creating a flexible system that can apply to many circumstances and can accommodate many types of evidence. This is especially important amid rapidly changing demands on and expectations for colleges and universities.
- Helping faculty members demonstrate the success of evidence-based practices even when students resist.
- Allowing truly innovative and highly effective instructors to stand out and allowing departments to focus on the types of skills they need instructors to have in different types of classes.
- Allowing instructors, departments and universities to tell a richer, more compelling story about the value of teaching and learning.
Those involved were realistic, though. They recognized that they have much work ahead as they make small changes they hope will lead to more significant cultural changes. They recognized the value of a network of colleagues willing to share ideas, to offer support and resources, and to share the burden of a daunting task. And they recognized that they are on the forefront of a long-needed revolution in the way teaching is evaluated and valued at research universities.
If we truly value good teaching, it must be rewarded in the same way that research is rewarded. That would go a long way toward the project’s ultimate goal: a university system in which innovative instructors create rich environments where all their students can learn. It’s a goal well worth fighting for, even if the most prevalent response is “but …”