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How to evaluate teaching

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Article Sections

  1. What is evaluation of teaching and why is it needed?
  2. What does the research say about evaluation and what are the implications for practice?
  3. How to evaluate
  4. References

What does the research say about evaluation and what are the implications for practice?

There has been a considerable amount of research on the effectiveness of student evaluations.

Overview of the research

Nuhfer (2003), in his position paper for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Idaho State University, comments that there is a demonstrable link between student satisfaction and achievement. He also mentions that large class size negatively affects student evaluations, and that motivated students are more likely to rate a course highly.

Pounder (2007) provides a useful literature review of the "myriad studies" of evaluation. He shows that evaluation is affected by many different factors, such as:

  • the age of the student (mature students are likely to be more lenient),
  • the gender of the teacher (women can be discriminated against),
  • teacher personality,
  • course content, and
  • what grade the teacher awarded the student.

Pounder concludes that there are too many variables for one measure to be an accurate assessment, also that there is no correlation between the standard SET and student achievement. This does not mean, however, that one should reject student evaluation out of hand, but that one should supplement traditional methods with other approaches.

An holistic approach

The framework presented here suggests that in the case of the SET process in its conventional form, its value is questionable as the sole measure of classroom performance since the quality, richness and diversity of what happens in the typical classroom cannot be captured by the SET process alone.

However, in the field of education, measures of classroom effectiveness are essential, despite the deficiencies of the conventional SET approach. There are therefore strong grounds for arguing that educational organizations can and should experiment with and develop approaches to assessing classroom dynamics that break from the conventional SET mould. Educational organizations might then be in the position to supplement the conventional SET with other approaches that have the potential to provide a richer picture, and more equitable assessment, of what happens in the classroom (Pounder, 2007: pp. 186-187).

Nuhfer (2003) also argues for a more holistic approach to evaluation and the inclusion of formative methods. He is sceptical about the value of some types of summative evaluation, which use global questions such as, "Overall, how do you rate this instructor's teaching ability compared to all other college instructors' teaching ability ... " on the grounds that the measurement is of student satisfaction, rather than learning. Such questions may be open to administrative abuse as teaching competence is deduced and tenure and promotion decisions made.

Gender bias

There is also widespread concern that standard evaluations may reflect negatively on women faculty. While this may be difficult to substantiate, and many researchers would deny any bias, there is concern that research does not look at contextual information, for example at the way women faculty may be assigned to larger classes.

Fox (2008) quotes a study by Basow (1998) in which the author gathered substantial quantitative data about the position of male and female staff members at her institution, and found that female teachers were at a disadvantage in terms of status and position. When the ratings favoured male lecturers, this doubled their disadvantage in that they were less likely to get tenure or promotion.

What does the research tell us about evaluation?

From the research it is possible to deduce a number of principles of effective practice for evaluation:

  1. No one instrument on its own can account for the multidimensional aspect of teaching and learning. It is necessary to find information from more than one source, and to triangulate with a number of different methods (Abrami, 1993 and Marsh 1995, quoted by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 2010; Nuhfer, 2003; and Pounder, 2007). According to Fox (2008), " ... the reason that many studies of student evaluations of teaching so far have produced conflicting results is that too few of them account for multiple dimensions of teaching and learning".
  2. Formative as well as summative evaluation should be used. Nuhfer (2003) quotes studies that show formative evaluation, with a follow-up consultation with the students, is more effective than summative evaluation on its own. Just obtaining quantitative information and analysing the numbers will not give sufficient clarity or depth.
  3. Know at the start what you are evaluating. According to Johnstone (2005: p. 2), "the purpose of the teaching innovation and the expected outcomes in terms of student learning and attitude changes must be specified". And as no one instrument is suitable for all evaluation purposes (Nuhfer, 2003), design the tool carefully to measure what you have decided is important.
  4. Evaluation should focus not merely on individual teachers and their performance, but also on improving teaching and learning generally (Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 2010).
  5. Avoid subjective questions about the personality or charisma of the teacher, and focus on educational attainment (Nuhfer, 2003).
  6. A range of variables can affect evaluation, such as student motivation to take the course, grade anticipation, size of class, etc., and, arguably, the gender of the instructor (Fox, 2008; Pounder, 2007).
  7. Instructors receive different ratings on different courses, therefore reliable judgements cannot be made on the basis of one course (Cashin, 1988, quoted in Nuhfer, 2003).
  8. There needs to be a common understanding between faculty and administrators about the various purposes of evaluations, and mechanisms put in place, such as a system of appeal, to ensure fairness and discourage abuse (Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, 2010).