INSIDE Chico State
0 March 8, 2001
Volume 31 Number 12
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




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Provost's Corner

Scott G. McNall
Scott G. McNall

(Photo by Jeff Teeter)

A Perfect 10: Rating Teachers

Since the 1979 movie 10, men and women have rated each other in a most politically incorrect way. A perfect score is a 10. The common response to being rated is outrage -- unless, perhaps, the score is 10.

Being ranked, rated, and evaluated is common in our society, and it starts early. Children may be deemed ready for kindergarten or first grade on the basis of examinations. Once in school, children are graded, and by at least middle school, receive A's, F's, or something in between. The schools they attend may even be ranked, and those rankings plus the students' SAT and ACT scores and their grades can determine whether they get into a really good university or none at all. Scores are kept in baseball, batting averages carefully computed and remembered by fans. Potential transplant recipients are scored by hospitals, doctors, and HMOs, both in terms of whether they are good medical risks and whether they are "socially valuable" recipients. Numbers, scores, ratings, rankings: these often start arguments about who is the best student, the best athlete, the person most worthy of medical care -- and who is the best teacher. Scores and numbers do affect people's lives. We must take care how we use them and how we interpret them.

In our university, we are required to evaluate teaching effectiveness. We have for some time done this through the use of what is sometimes referred to as the "bubble form," a set of quantitative questions, together with a set of qualitative questions that require students to provide written opinions of teaching effectiveness. These materials have been entered into personnel files and used to make important personnel decisions. Only if the qualitative form is signed has it been available for such use. Therefore, most of the time the data given to Retention, Tenure, and Promotion (RTP) committees has been quantitative data used to rank the teacher, rather than to improve the learning and teaching environment. A confluence of events has now provided the entire faculty with an opportunity to answer some important questions about how to evaluate teaching.

During the fall semester of 2000, the University Student Evaluation of Faculty Committee (USEF) presented to the Academic Senate the results of their four-year study of the validity of our USEF questions. This generated a series of important and serious discussions in the senate's Faculty and Student Policies Committee (FASP), USEF, and the Academic Senate. The discussion focused on the following three related questions:

  • What is good teaching?
  • How should we measure it through student evaluations?
  • In what ways can the campus use student evaluations of teaching to help faculty develop high-quality learning environments inside and outside of the classroom?

During this conversation, the following important points were made:

  • Teaching is a multidimensional activity and needs to be evaluated accordingly through peer review, self-evaluation, and student evaluations.
  • Teaching is inherently a risky business. Faculty experimentation in the classroom should be encouraged without fear of retribution. Student evaluations of teaching (SETs), therefore, should be used to help, not punish. At times, there has been an over-reliance on student evaluation numbers to evaluate teaching. Sometimes there has been an over-reliance on just one number.
  • We value, and we require, the input of students, but we should think carefully about how to get it and how to use it. Students often do not take the bubble form seriously. And it is debatable whether or not we should put words in the mouths of students or, rather, should seek to allow them to use their own words about the classroom learning environment.

These discussions led to a recommendation from FASP that was brought forward to the Academic Senate, where it was discussed at length. The resolution called for the use of both qualitative data (which would be used in the RTP process) and quantitative data (which would go only to the instructor and would not be entered into the personnel file). This resolution also recognized the multidimensionality of teaching by asking that the USEF make recommendations about how to improve peer evaluations and self-evaluations, both important components of any strong system of teaching evaluation. Instead of bringing the resolution to a vote, the senate decided that, because of the importance and impact of the recommendation, it was essential to get the input of as many faculty as possible prior to taking action on the resolution. It was decided that the best course of action was to ask each department to consider the three questions posed and for the faculty to make their preferences known by way of a ballot, which they should now have, and may even have acted upon.

Our options will be constrained because we have found that our previous way of handling the process of SETs was not in compliance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). What we now need to do, if we are to have both qualitative and quantitative data, is to make both forms anonymous, if they are to be entered into the personnel file. The good news is that we will collect much more information if we require both qualitative and quantitative questions.

My point is not to argue for one form or another. It is to argue that we all consider carefully what we will do with the data we collect, and how we will balance the perceptions of students against the perceptions of colleagues, as well as how we will weight the self-evaluation of the teacher in making decisions about people's lives. We have been moving in our personnel process toward developmental, rather than summative and judgmental, evaluations of scholarship, teaching, and service. Our personnel documents speak to the need to provide comments to one's colleagues that will help them grow. It is important to underscore the fact that most standardized teaching evaluation forms (e.g., SIR II) make it clear that the forms should not be used to compare people and that fine-grained distinctions cannot and should not be made between people on the basis of a few qualitative questions.

After more than 25 years of doing it one way, we now have three streams that run together (the resolution before the Senate, the need to bring our process into line with the CBA, and an emerging commitment to developmental evaluations) to create a river of opportunity to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Provide an opportunity for each department to engage in the discussion of what constitutes good teaching and learning, how it should be assessed, and how the data collected should be used to help improve learning environments.
  • Develop methods of evaluation that recognize the multidimensionality of teaching and learning.
  • Develop a system of student evaluation of teaching and learning that allows student input and results in data that are truly descriptive of the time, effort, expertise, and experience that good teachers dedicate to their students.

Teaching is not an activity that can be scored like an Olympic event. Teaching evaluations are not designed and should not be used to compare people's performance, ranking some people as 1's and others as 2's. Rating has a place, but not when it comes to working collaboratively and cooperatively to improve the quality of the learning environment.

Scott G. McNall, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs
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