21 February 2007

Student Evaluation of Teaching

Student evaluation of teaching, or SET* as it is often called, can be a hot topic in academe.
Many managment folks (i.e. college administrators), not surprisingly, would like to simplify teaching assessment to a simple, quantifiable measure. Having a simple number makes it easy to say "Jo is a bad teacher and should not get tenure." or "Bo is a great teacher and deserves a raise."

Two crucial problems have stemmed from this simple approach: (1) grade inflation, since it is well established that, quid pro quo, students award teachers with high evaluation scores when teachers award students with high grades; and (2) decreased mastery of content by students, as measured with performance on standardized exams or through performance in subsequent, sequenced courses. Grade inflation has been a most obvious problem. And since it has occured during a period of decreasing SAT scores, it's hard to argue that "students are just plain smarter than they used to be."
Graph of grade inflation, from http://gradeinflation.com.

Many colleges have recognized this problem, and some have taken steps to avoid the misuse of SET. Schools that have tackled the SET/grade inflation issue have been mainly elite schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and UC-Berkeley. Maybe this is because elite schools have led in grade inflation. Run-of-the-mill schools have been much more reluctant to publicly address the problem, however, or to take steps to control it. Given that most colleges must compete for students and that funding for public institutions is tied directly to enrollment, this reluctance is easy to understand. We can't afford to chase students away. But certainly there are other things we can do to retain students, instead of padding their grades?

Grade inflation aside (it appears to be driven by other factors in addition to SET), keeping SET in perspective and preventing it from becoming a farce is not so difficult. Here are a few steps that schools & faculty that care about this issue can take:
  1. Do not base faculty promotion & tenure on the evaluation of teaching as measured by SET.

  2. Other measures of teaching include peer observation & review, evaluation of syllabi and student assignments, teacher use of formative evaluations to refine teaching strategies, pre- and post-class performance of students on standardized exams, and surveys of alumni.

  3. Do not base pay raises, teaching awards, or merit pay on the evaluation of teaching as measured by SET.

  4. Master teachers mentor new instructors.
Astute management types will argue, "But that's tooo harrrd!" Yes. Reality is hard to grasp. And when that reality involves having control over the professional lives of other human beings, we ought to be willing to do the hard work. To do less is cynical and irresponsible.

* SET is also called SEI, for Student Evaluation of Instruction.

A brief bibliography:

Arreola, Raoul A. Developing a Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation System: A Handbook for College Faculty and Administrators (2000).

"Higher Grades = Higher Evaluations," a brief annotated bibliography, at http://www.bus.lsu.edu/accounting/faculty/lcrumbley/Highgra.html.

Huemer, Michael. "Student Evaluations: A Critical Review" at http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/sef.htm.

Johnson, Valen E. "Beyond Grade Inflation: Grading Problems in Higher Education" (review)The Review of Higher Education 30 (Number 1, Fall 2006): 76-77.
Rundell, William. "On the use of numerically scored student evaluations of faculty," at http://www.math.tamu.edu/~william.rundell/teaching_evaluations/article.html [Rundell has great data on the negative correlation between evaluations (or grades) and subsequent performance.]

Seldin, Peter ed. Changing Practices in Evaluating Teaching: A Practical Guide to Improved Faculty Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions (1999).

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