Lately I’ve been thinking about assessment and how good teaching is measured in higher education. Primary and secondary schools now rely heavily on student success with standardized tests and teacher success in implementing prescribed instruction. While this system is designed to evaluate good teaching by the impact on student learning, the assessment measures would not be appropriate for higher education, which shifts from competency to high order skill objectives like critical thinking and global awareness.
Ever since I entered higher education 15 years ago, first as a student, and now as a professor, I’ve seen teachers evaluated through three main measures: teaching demonstrations, classroom evaluations, and student evaluations. All three of these components scrutinize the teacher, rather than the learner because measuring student learning in higher education is much more subjective, dependent on institutional make up and mission, save some attempts at gathering quantitative data. How can measurements of good teaching be tied to significant data on student learning in higher education?
Teaching demonstrations are the first assessment of collegiate teachers, during the interview process for new positions. The weight placed on the demonstration will vary depending on the type of institution–R1 vs. SLAC–and perhaps to some extent on the discipline (i.e., humanities, STEM, professional degree programs, etc.). Teaching demonstrations are inherently focused on the teacher, even though teaching implies that there is also a learner. Search committees are looking for a fit, someone that brings a breath of fresh air or conforms to departmental culture. Teachers interviewing for positions are measured on performance, not impact.
Classroom evaluations are completed by colleagues and administrators for use in a professor’s promotion and tenure dossier. Like teaching demonstrations, the focus of a classroom evaluation is on the teacher: was the instructor prepared? does the instructor demonstrate competency with topic? did the instructor begin and end class on time? Even questions more sensitive to student learning still focus on the teacher: did the instructor make effective use of technology and media? did the instructor answer student questions clearly and effectively? did the instructor engage all students in the class?
Student evaluations cover many of the same questions as classroom evaluations. And even if a focus on teacher performance is still present, there is also the new angle of student satisfaction. While a liberal education aims to empower students to be critical and reflective, the intent behind students evaluations is not always matched by their use. Some institutions try to mediate the schism by adding questions that invite students to reflect on their performance. But in many cases those questions are absent or not effectively integrated with the assessment of teaching and learning.
So why is teaching evaluated with little consideration for learning? One of the great rewards of being a college professor is having some autonomy over curriculum and instruction. Any measure to assess student learning through standardized testing and an adherence to prepackaged courses would adversely threaten the whole notion of a liberal education. But is there a more effective way to measure good teachers in higher education that places as much emphasis on student learning as teacher performance? I’d be interested in hearing how other institutions have handled evaluations.
When to break it to ’em
I’ve addressed “why you need this course” many times in my syllabi and first day spiels. The intention to “get the record straight” before the class commences is certainly understandable. We don’t want students to harbor skepticism that may inhibit their learning experience. Furthermore, we may also wish to prevent any undesirable comments on course evaluations and www.ratemyprofessor.com. We want the buy in immediately, so we turn to the selling mode on day one.
With this approach, however, the professor potentially risks one of the most important outcomes of higher education: critical thinking. Indoctrinating students before they have had an opportunity to engage with the material is denying them an environment where they can challenge the system. Do you want your students to speak their mind in class? Do you want students to develop thesis statements that creatively go against the majority? Do you want students to deconstruct long-standing theories? Of course you do!!! Well, then let them.
You cannot have is both ways. If you present students with your offer of value on the first day, then they will make their decision on whether to buy into it on the first day. Either they will accept the value because you told them to or they will tune out because your actions told them that you’re a phony. The semester will be a drag. However, if you want them to critically engage with course topics, you have to let them call you out from time to time. This is what an intellectual community does.
Breaking the news to them that your course will have long-term value is something that should come later in the semester and it should be initiated by the students. Everything will need to be thrown on the table when students begin to challenge what you’re doing and to question whether it’s worth their time. Your willingness to put your plan on hold when the time presents itself will convince students of your authenticity as an educator. Furthermore, all sides are now privy to course content and thus in a better position to discuss on equal grounds. It’s not fair to tell students they need the content of the course when you haven’t even shown it to them yet. If you can guide the discussion to allow students to formulate plausible connections between their learning experiences and future scenarios, the buy in will be far greater. And they will have arrived at this by exercising the inquisitive mindset we are trying to cultivate.
Not every student will see the connection, even after this conversation. It will be tempting to consider it shortsighted. However, if the class has the opportunity to challenge you and the encouragement to support that challenge with evidence, then they’re modeling something more valuable than you could over sell them with a lecture.