By Doug Ward

A peer review of teaching generally goes something like this:

An instructor nears third-year review or promotion. At the request of the promotion and tenure committee, colleagues who have never visited the instructor’s class hurriedly sign up for a single visit. Sometimes individually, sometimes en masse, they sit uncomfortably among wary students for 50 or 75 minutes. Some take notes. Others don’t. Soon after, they submit laudatory remarks about the instructor’s teaching, relieved that they won’t have to visit again for a few years.

ChangHwan Kim (left), Tracey LaPierre and Paul Stock discuss their plans for evaluating teaching in the sociology department. They gathered with faculty members from four other units at the inaugural meeting of the Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness Project.

If your department or school has a better system, consider yourself lucky. Most peer evaluations lack guidelines that might offer meaningful feedback for a candidate and a P&T committee, and they focus almost exclusively on classroom performance. They provide a snapshot at best, lacking context about the class, the students or the work that has gone into creating engagement, assignments, evaluations and, above all, learning. Academics often refer to that approach as a “drive-by evaluation,” as reviewers do little but breeze past a class and give a thumbs-up out the window.

Those peer evaluations don’t have to be a clumsy, awkward and vapid free-for-all, though. Through the Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness Project, we have begun a process intended to make the evaluation of teaching much richer and more meaningful. The project is financed through a five-year, $612,000 National Science Foundation grant and is part of a larger NSF project that includes the University of Colorado, Michigan State, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

We have used the NSF grant to distribute mini-grants to four departments and one school that will pilot the use of a rubric intended to add dimension and guidance to the evaluation of teaching. Faculty members in those units will work with colleagues to define and identify the elements of good teaching in their discipline, decide on appropriate evidence, adapt the rubric, apply it in some way, and share experiences with colleagues inside and outside the department and the university. Evidence will come from three sources: the instructor, students and peers, with departments deciding how to weight the evidence and to weight the categories in the rubric.

Not surprisingly, the instructors involved in the project had many questions about how the process might play out as they gathered for the first time in February: What types of evidence are most reliable? How do we reduce conscious or unconscious bias in the evaluation process? How do we gain consensus among colleagues for an expanded evaluation process and for application of a new system of evaluation? How can we create a more meaningful process that doesn’t eat up lots of time?

Those are important questions without simple answers, but the departments that have signed on in this initial stage of the project have already identified many worthy goals. For instance, Sociology, Philosophy and Biology hope to reduce bias and improve consistency in the evaluation process. Chemical and Petroleum Engineering plans to create triads of faculty members who will provide feedback to one another. Public Affairs and Administration sees opportunities for enriching the enjoyment of teaching and for inspiring instructors to take risks to innovate teaching.

All the units will use the rubric to foster discussion among their colleagues, to identify trustworthy standards of evidence, and, ultimately, to evaluate peers. Philosophy and sociology see opportunities for better evaluating graduate teaching assistants, as well. Chemical and Petroleum Engineering hopes to use the rubric to guide and evaluate 10 faculty members on tenure track. Sociology plans to use it to guide peer evaluation of teaching. Public Affairs and Administration plans to have a group of faculty alternate between evaluator and evaluee as they hone aspects of the rubric. Biology plans to explore the best ways to interpret the results.

That range of activities is important. By using the rubric to foster discussion about the central elements of teaching – and its evaluation – and then testing it in a variety of circumstances, instructors will learn valuable information about the teaching process. That feedback will allow us to revise the rubric, create better guidelines for its use, and ultimately help as many departments as possible adopt it for the promotion and tenure process.

All of the faculty members working in the initial phase of the Benchmarks project recognize the complexity and challenge of high-quality teaching. They also recognize the challenges in creating a better system of evaluation. Ultimately, though, their work has the potential to make good teaching more transparent, to make the evaluation of teaching more nuanced, and to make teaching itself a more important part of the faculty evaluation process.

Work your way through college? Not anymore

Kansas students would need to work nearly 30 hours a week at minimum wage to pay for college, even if they received grants and scholarships, according to an analysis by the public policy organization Demos.

In only eight other states would students need to work more hours to pay for college. New Hampshire, which would require more than 41 hours of work a week, was No. 1, followed by Pennsylvania (39.8 hours) and Alabama (36 hours).

Students attending college in Washington State would need to work the fewest hours (11.6), followed by California (12.6) and New York (15).

“In the vast majority of states, the idea of working your way through college is no more than an antiquated myth,” Demos writes. “A combination of low minimum wages and high college prices make borrowing an inevitability for students.”

The average yearly cost of attending Kansas universities is $16,783, Demos says. That’s 86 percent higher than it was in 2001, putting Kansas at No. 32 in average cost of attendance for public universities. New Hampshire had the highest average cost ($26,008), followed by Vermont ($25,910) and New Jersey ($25,544). Utah ($13,344) had the lowest average cost, followed by Wyoming ($13,942) and Idaho ($14,211).

Demos, which tilts liberal in its ideology, calculated the rankings using data from the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Department of Labor. It created a “net price” for each state by subtracting average scholarship and grant aid from the average tuition and fees for four-year colleges in each state.

That approach has many flaws. In Kansas, for instance, tuition and fees vary widely among four-year universities and even within schools at those universities. Averaging also masks a wide variance in the amount of financial aid students receive. Looking only at cost of attendance skews the picture even further, as housing, food and other expenses generally exceed the cost of tuition and fees, especially in the Northeast and West Coast.

Even so, the study offers a reality check about college costs. State investment in higher education has declined even as the number of students attending college, and the diversity among those students, has grown. In Kansas, tuition now covers an average of 53 percent of a university’s costs, compared with 28 percent in 2001. Even that looks good compared with states like New Hampshire, where tuition accounts for 79 percent of university revenue, Delaware (75 percent) and Pennsylvania (73 percent).

Then again, in Wyoming, tuition dollars account for only 13 percent of college budgets. That is considerable lower than the states that follow: California (21 percent) and Alaska (30 percent) . In all states but Wyoming, tuition dollars now account for a greater share of university budgets that they did in 2001.

As Demos writes, “our state and federal policymakers have been vacating the compact with students that previous generations enjoyed.” It’s no wonder students have sought to put political pressure on schools and legislators.

The disinvestment in higher education began in the 1970s as a political message of lower taxes and smaller government started gaining ground. It accelerated during economic downturns and has only recently begun to ease. To compensate, colleges and universities have cut staff, hired fewer tenure-track professors, increased class size, and relied increasingly on low-paid adjunct instructors for teaching. Students and their families have taken on larger amounts of debt to finance their education.

As Demos writes: “When states do not prioritize higher education as a public good, students and families generally bear the burden.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Comments are closed.