Not long after our grades are in, we’ll have access to online teaching evaluations for the term. If you’ve had a class with high rates of plagiarism or low marks during the evaluation period, you might hold your breath before clicking to see the report. Will the few students who filled out the online FCS be those who needed catharsis or who wanted to express appreciation? Will enough students provide written comments to guide adjustments or confirm what worked? Will feedback from less than 10% of your class have an impact on your employment?
In an article in the April 25 Issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michelle Falcoff considers these issues. She summarizes the results of a 2016 faculty survey, and referring to her own experience directing a program in communication and legal reasoning at Northwestern, she points out that a required course, offered in the first year, with high standards and much critical feedback can lead to highly negative teaching evaluations. This suggests a more widely applicable definition of bias than that used in a recent study on gender bias and teaching evaluations.
In the same issue of the Chronicle, Karen Kelsey focuses on the ambiguous wording of evaluations and notes ways to make the exercise more accurate and useful. Falcoff recommends peer review to contextualize student comments. She points to a resource from the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) that provides an extensive list of measurement approaches that can put imperfect instruments such as the FCS into perspective. You may find some ideas for your teaching dossier on that list.
Those of you relatively new to Procom who still have to submit to peer evaluations may feel anxiety about faculty bias as well. Another helpful resource from Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching acknowledges this concern. Click to “Possible Limitations of Peer Review.”
Finally, and more depressingly, are the implications of a 1993 study, which found that teaching evaluation results at the end of term were highly correlated to the impression students had of an instructor’s nonverbal behaviour in the first 30 seconds of the first class. Are our carefully constructed lectures, exercises and instruction, not to mention agonizing over grades, all for naught?
This is an area that makes contractual lecturers feel very vulnerable. Perhaps it’s time for us to work more closely as a group to discuss how to make the teaching evaluation process more meaningful and fair.