One thing most academics can agree on: How we evaluate our colleagues’ work in the classroom is a vexed system, badly in need of overhaul.
A recent essay in The Chronicle, “How Peer Review Could Improve Our Teaching,” offers wonderfully clear advice on how to improve one element of that system: peer review of teaching. The authors offer ideas on how to overcome a host of entrenched, unproductive habits that now make peer review of teaching feel not just unsatisfying, but also punitive and hurtful at times.
I hope to build on the conversation by moving beyond the authors’ primary point that “we can do better” at peer review. We certainly can. I agree with all of their good suggestions to consider the full scope of an instructor’s teaching (not just in-class time), institutionalize regular classroom visits, and position peer review as a formative process. But for a true culture shift to take place about teaching, departments and institutions need to reform not just peer review but its many adjacent practices, too. Peer review sits within a larger nexus of evaluative customs — all of which should be similarly investigated, reformed, and eventually aligned with one another.
As the authors of the peer-review essay noted, many campuses continue to rely on “outdated, cursory methods of evaluating teaching that are uninformative, ad hoc, and subject to bias.” To effect deep and sustainable change, I propose we adopt the following additional reforms that intersect with peer review:
Rewrite department handbooks and faculty manuals to be less generic about teaching. Just as vague letters of recommendation from dissertation advisers — “Although I have not personally seen Dr. Smith teach, she is the best graduate student I have worked with in the past five years” — are essentially useless, so, too, are generic campus statements about how much a department or institution values “teaching excellence.” If hired, where can Dr. Smith go for guidance on what that amorphous beast looks like and on how she will be expected to prove teaching excellence in the tenure-and-promotion process?
To be more useful, department and faculty manuals should offer detailed guidance on what constitutes effective teaching and lay out the various ways that it can be assessed and demonstrated. These handbooks could:
- Break down teaching effectiveness into narrow categories. Does the course challenge students intellectually? Does the faculty member communicate effectively with students, demonstrate a commitment to learning, and remain current in the discipline?
- List specific ways that teaching effectiveness may be assessed — and not just via peer review and end-of-term evaluations. Other methods include teaching portfolios with relevant materials, pedagogical innovation, and work with students outside the classroom
- Most important, make sure the faculty manual spells out — in a stand-alone statement — precisely how course evaluations from students will (and will not) be used in annual reviews, tenure, and promotions. Include a caveat about the potential for bias in these surveys.
Actually reward good teaching. Put the institution’s money where its mouth is by making sure that teaching effectiveness is appropriately acknowledged in the institution’s various systems of rewards. Plenty of outstanding teachers have been denied tenure because they didn’t publish enough while many full professors with vibrant research agendas are hopeless in the classroom.
Faculty members will always have differing strengths. But institutions can take steps to mitigate the message sent by our outdated practices: that teaching excellence doesn’t really matter in academe.
An institution’s expenditures typically reflect its values. Teaching excellence will carry more weight if your campus:
- Creates significant merit grants and sabbatical leaves for faculty members to engage in course development and pedagogical innovation.
- Establishes alternative tenure-and-promotion pathways for academics committed to teaching and service.
- Hands out bigger checks for annual teaching awards than for research awards. (My own college does this: The annual faculty prize for scholarship comes with a check for $1,000 while the annual teaching award is worth $5,000.)
Center course-evaluation surveys on student learning, not on faculty performance. End-of-semester evaluations that ask students to rate a professor’s effectiveness on Likert scales (“The instructor effectively explained and illustrated course concepts.”) do little to improve teaching. At best, they provide generic advice, and at worst, they can be painful and insulting. Poor evaluations can even threaten careers, especially for faculty of color and women, who are much more likely to receive disparaging comments about their personal appearance and status as experts, as a wide body of research has shown.
If your institution is going to require course evaluations, make them useful. Ask students to reflect on their understanding of what they have learned, the quality of the reading materials, the level of challenge of the course, and even their own performance during the semester. That way, students take responsibility for evaluating their own learning and faculty members receive more specific feedback to consider about their classroom learning environment.
Give students a say during the semester. Invite students to weigh in on how a class is going when their input can make a difference for their own learning. End-of-term evaluations do little to improve teaching, since the results arrive long after students have left the class and at a time when faculty members are recovering from a long semester, planning next term’s classes, or looking forward to a summer of productive research. Some institutions have experimented with midterm check-ins — an idea first proposed in the 1970s — that ask students to reflect on the learning environment of the course.
Here’s how the midsemester check-ins work in the honors college of which I am dean:
- About eight weeks into the term, faculty members devote an hour to the exercise. The professor organizes the students into small groups and then leaves the room.
- Each small group discusses: (a) the two to three most important things they think they should be learning in the course; (b) the specific activities that help them learn; (c) strategies that could make the classroom more effective; and (d) two to three steps they could take to improve their own learning.
- After the discussions are done, the groups report their findings. A student discussion leader helps the class reach consensus on the points and records them on the whiteboard.
- Once the data is collected, class is dismissed and the discussion leader walks the faculty member through the feedback.
Having used that strategy in my own courses, I am continually struck by the thoughtfulness of the responses, the willingness of students to take responsibility for their role in the learning process, and the tangible nature of the comments. It’s always gratifying as an instructor to hear what’s working in your classroom — and what isn’t — and have time to improve the trouble spots. Students also feel respected and appreciate the chance to have a say in the direction of the course for the remaining weeks of the semester.
Organize new faculty hires into communities of practice built around teaching. While we have come a long way over the past few decades in understanding that great teachers are made rather than born, the myth of the naturally gifted teacher persists. We can sweep away the detritus of that harmful stereotype by supporting the development of new faculty members in the classroom.
To signal that your institution believes that teaching skills develop over time and must be nurtured with the support of institutional resources, invite new faculty members to participate in a yearlong learning community focused on teaching and learning. These learning communities for new faculty hires could:
- Help them develop specific teaching skills.
- Encourage confidential conversations about first-year struggles in the classroom.
- Allow for low-stakes visits to one another’s classrooms.
- Create opportunities to hear from senior professors about their successful teaching strategies
- Offer chances to engage in common-read discussions of texts like bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, James M. Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, or Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know, to name three among hundreds of wonderful choices.
All of these practices operate in alignment with peer review of teaching. A reimagined peer-review process will affirm teaching excellence as a true institutional value. But peer review is simply one tool to help move us toward the goal of establishing a vibrant culture of continuous improvement in teaching practices