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.
In an essay posted to Inside Higher Education this morning, Peter Burian effectively turned a traditionalist argument into a refreshing voice of reason amidst current debates on the value of humanities fields. Many champions of the liberal arts, including myself, have emphasized the “transferable skills” argument of liberal arts study for career-oriented discourse of higher education. This approach has breathed new life into the content course and pushed students to grow beyond their comfort zone for a competitive edge in today’s global economy. And while this curriculum crashing is a necessity, Burian reminds us that professor crashing is indeed required.
Assessment, course evaluations, accreditation, retention, and graduation rates are all important to the best teachers. But in our quest to be good teachers, do we forget to show students why we’re inspired to be good teachers? Burian hit the nail on the head in shifting the conversation from relevance back to essence. Rather than defending the value of the humanities to external demands, professors ought to emphasize and explore the depths of what makes us human. One cannot face the complexities of a culturally diverse and complicated world fully without seeking what lies beneath the shallow commerce of information in the digital age. And this fulfillment is a privilege of humanistic study, not a goal.
While I applaud Burian for reiterating the timeless benefits of the humanities, I predict an uphill battle in trying to “reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.” Perhaps the first step is to model these principles. Students should not perceive humanists as task masters for student performance, facilitators of “great works” surveys, and preachers of the liberal arts gospel. Rather, students should admire professors for their individual quests for knowledge, truth, and understanding and should awe at their deep and unique perspective on current realities. One cannot and should not teach what one is not passionate about. Passion will inspire more than words.