Assessing Teachers with Student Evaluations

I’m writing today’s posting in response to a recent Inside Higher Education essay arguing against nontenured/tenure-track faculty being assessed based on student evaluations. You can find the original article here.

To summarize, Robert Samuels (Lecturer, UC Santa Barbara) argues that in this politically charged time, where anything but perceived neutrality can be seen as marginalizing the opposition, there is a need to move away from using student evaluations of a course to assess the faculty member teaching the course and to determine matters of promotion, renewal, and pay increases. He ties his argument mostly matters of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and job security. As a non-tenure track faculty member, I’m inclined to agree. What I disliked about this article, however, is how little of it focuses on real solutions, which is why articles like Chronicle Vitae‘s “Student Evaluations: Feared, Loathed, and Not Going Anywhere” keep cropping up from time to time.

Allow me to say that I do appreciate my students’ feedback. I often use it to make online and next-semester-oriented changes to the course to deliver better instructional experiences and to give the students what they feel that they need, as tempered by my understanding of learning as a researcher and educational expert. And, I am fine with them being a part of a triangulated approach to evaluating my work for consideration of promotion, reappointment, and annual pay increases. However, I feel that they need to be just one part of that review process and that they should be weighted in a way that acknowledges the students’ subject position and their relative position on the cline of higher education experience.  So, what does triangulated assessment for nontenure-track faculty look like? Here’s one possibility, and in some places, I’ll be expanding on Samuels most salient recommendation.

Item 1: Director Evaluations

Director evaluations should make up one item of the assessment that nontenure-track faculty should face. And, they should be weighted relatively strongly, but not so strongly that personal issues between the director and the faculty member can completely derail the faculty members chances for reappointment or promotion. They should be based on the director’s experiences of observing that person teach, at least twice, and their experiences with them as a departmental colleague. They should focus on how the faculty member aids in discharging the mission statement and goals of the program. And, it should also consider educational best practices as understood by the program and by the dominant discipline in which it is situated. Ideally, they should be written up in a way that can be shared with the faculty member, and that can lay the groundwork for guided reflection on the part of the faculty member. Finally, they should contribute to the development of plans that will focus on the continued professional and career development of the faculty member being evaluated.

Item 2: Peer Evaluations

Perhaps weighted less than the director’s evaluation, programmatic and disciplinary peer evaluations should also be part of the assessment of nontenure-track faculty members. Value around peer observations and formative feedback should be created in the program. Coming out of industry and into higher education, one of the things that have always shocked me is how anti-assessment we are when it comes to our work as professionals. Part of this, I feel, stems from our almost endemic imposter’s syndrome; and for some nontenure-track faculty, from a genuine worry that they can be replaced on a whim, especially if they are appointed to contingent faculty positions. However,by creating value around this experience for both members, we can begin to control for this possible worry. By setting up the peer evaluation as an opportunity for both faculty members to learn from each other—to provide constructive feedback that will help them develop in the longer-term—we can begin to assuage these assement fears. Also, by encouraging them to happen more than once and to allow the faculty member being evaluated to pick which peer-evaluations get included in their assessment docket, we can again control for some of these concerns, while still creating a positive assessment environment that encourages continued growth and development.

Item 3: Student Evaluations

Yes, I do believe that student evaluations should be considered in the overall assessment of all faculty. However, they should be weighted in such a manner that acknowledges that 1.) self-reporting is notoriously unreliable; 2.) that affective, racial, and gender-based interferences may skew an evaluation in a way that corrupts its efficacy as an objective assessment; 3.) that students are still in process and may not have a complete sense of educational endeavors until later in their academic careers—or even after they graduate. I know that some of the professors that I just chafed under during my undergraduate career gained a new respect after I graduated and could make better sense of their place in my educational processes and the disciplinarily situated ways in which they were teaching.

Item 4: The Reflective Teaching Portfolio

The final item in the assessment docket should be a reflective teaching portfolio where the faculty member being assessed critically reflects on their practice, how it meets and helps discharge programmatic goals, and how it reflects disciplinary best practices in their home discipline. This should be supported by samples of syllabi and student work, with the faculty member’s commentary about what worked and what didn’t work. To be truly valuable for the faculty member, I feel that it should be structured in a way that allows the faculty member to consider their own continued professional growth. This means that it should end with some discussion of what comes next. What revisions to materials or practice does the faculty member want to try next, and how can that be supported by the administration.

I’m fortunate to work for an institution that uses a review process similar to the one outlined above. Some tweaks will occur to it. But, it is my hope that the core of it—this focus on continued professional growth and development—will remain in place for as long as I am with the institution. I acknowledge that some faculty members at other institutions are evaluated almost solely on how their director feels about them and student evaluations. In this era of contingent faculty labor, this leads to understandable trepidation. For that reason, I believe that any assessment of faculty members needs to be multipronged. What’s listed above is just one way to go about this. And, as I continue through my career in higher education—for however long that might be—I’ll likely revisit the matter of faculty assessment and how it can be more than a 5-star Yelp review and be a tool that supports programmatic and professional growth and development for the good of the students.

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