By Doug Ward

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Faculty members seem ready for a more substantive approach to evaluating teaching, but …

It’s that “but” that about 30 faculty members from four research universities focused on at a mini-conference here this week. All are part of a project called TEval, which is working to develop a richer model of teaching evaluation by helping departments change their teaching culture. The project, funded by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant, involves faculty members from KU, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Michigan State.

Rob Ward, Tracey LaPierre and Chris Fischer discuss strategies during a meeting of TEval, an NSF-grant-funded project for changing the way teaching is evaluated. They joined colleagues from three other universities for meetings this week in Charlotte, N.C.

The evaluation of teaching has long centered on student surveys, which are fraught with biases and emphasize the performance aspects of teaching over student learning. Their ease of administration and ability to produce a number that can be compared to a department average have made them popular with university administrators and instructors alike. Those numbers certainly offer a tidy package that is delivered semester to semester with little or no time required of the instructor. And though the student voice needs to be a part of the evaluation process, only 50 to 60 percent of KU students complete the surveys. More importantly, the surveys fail to capture the intellectual work and complexity involved in high-quality teaching, something that more and more universities have begun to recognize

The TEval project is working with partner departments to revamp that entrenched process. Doing so, though, requires additional time, work and thought. It requires instructors to document the important elements of their teaching – elements that have often been taken for granted — to reflect on that work in meaningful ways, and to produce a plan for improvement. It requires evaluation committees to invest time in learning about instructors, courses and curricula, and to work through portfolios rather than reducing teaching to a single number and a single class visit, a process that tends to clump everyone together into a meaningless above-average heap.

That’s the where the “but …” comes into play. Teaching has long been a second-class citizen in the rewards system of research universities, leading many instructors and administrators to chafe at the idea of spending more time documenting and evaluating teaching. As with so many aspects of university life, though, real change can come about only if we are willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen.

None of this is easy. At all the campuses involved in the TEval project, though, instructors and department leaders have agreed to make the time. The goal is to refine the evaluation process, share trials and experiences, create a palette of best practices, and find pathways that others can follow.

At the meeting here in Charlotte, participants talked about the many challenges that lie ahead:

  • University policies that fail to reward teaching, innovation, or efforts to change culture.
  • An evaluation system based on volume: number of students taught, numbers on student surveys, number of teaching awards.
  • Recalcitrant faculty who resist changing a system that has long rewarded selfishness and who show no interest in reframing teaching as a shared endeavor.
  • Administrators who refuse to give faculty the time they need to engage in a more effective evaluation system.
  • Tension between treating evaluations as formative (a means of improving teaching) and evaluative (a means of determining merit raises and promotions).
  • Agreeing on what constitutes evidence of high-quality teaching.

Finding ways to move forward

By the end of the meeting, though, a hopeful spirit seemed to emerge as cross-campus conversations led to ideas for moving the process forward:

  • Tapping into the desire that most faculty have for seeing their students succeed.
  • Working with small groups to build momentum in many departments.
  • Creating a flexible system that can apply to many circumstances and can accommodate many types of evidence. This is especially important amid rapidly changing demands on and expectations for colleges and universities.
  • Helping faculty members demonstrate the success of evidence-based practices even when students resist.
  • Allowing truly innovative and highly effective instructors to stand out and allowing departments to focus on the types of skills they need instructors to have in different types of classes.
  • Allowing instructors, departments and universities to tell a richer, more compelling story about the value of teaching and learning.

Those involved were realistic, though. They recognized that they have much work ahead as they make small changes they hope will lead to more significant cultural changes. They recognized the value of a network of colleagues willing to share ideas, to offer support and resources, and to share the burden of a daunting task. And they recognized that they are on the forefront of a long-needed revolution in the way teaching is evaluated and valued at research universities.

If we truly value good teaching, it must be rewarded in the same way that research is rewarded. That would go a long way toward the project’s ultimate goal: a university system in which innovative instructors create rich environments where all their students can learn. It’s a goal well worth fighting for, even if the most prevalent response is “but …”

A note about the project

At KU, the project for creating a richer system for evaluating teaching is known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness. Nine departments are now involved in the project: African and African-American Studies; Biology; Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; French, Francophone and Italian; Linguistics; Philosophy; Physics; Public Affairs and Administration; and Sociology. Representatives from those departments who attended the Charlotte meeting were Chris Fischer, Bruce Hayes, Tracey LaPierre, Ward Lyles, and Rob Ward. The leaders of the KU project, Andrea Greenhoot, Meagan Patterson and Doug Ward, also attended.

Briefly …

Tom Deans, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, challenges faculty to reduce the length of their syllabuses, saying that “the typical syllabus has now become a too-long list of policies, learning outcomes, grading formulas, defensive maneuvers, recommendations, cautions, and referrals.” He says a syllabus should be no more than two pages. … British universities are receiving record numbers of applications from students from China and Hong Kong, The Guardian reports. In the U.S., applications from Chinese students have held steady, but fewer international students are applying to U.S. universities, the Council of Graduate Studies reports. … As the popularity of computer science has grown, students at many universities are having trouble getting the classes they need, The New York Times reports.


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

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.

By Doug Ward

The spread of evidence-based teaching practices highlights a growing paradox: Even as instructors work to evaluate student learning in creative, multidimensional ways, they themselves are generally judged only through student evaluations.

Students should have a voice. As Stephen Benton and William Cashin write in a broad review of research, student evaluations can help faculty members improve their courses and help administrators spot potential problems in the classroom.optical illusion box

The drawback is that too many departments use only student evaluations to judge the effectiveness of instructors, even as they submit faculty research through a multilayered evaluation process internally and externally. Student evaluations are the only university-mandated form of gauging instructors’ teaching, and many departments measure faculty members against a department mean. Those above the mean are generally viewed favorably and those below the mean are seen as a problem. That approach fails to account for the weaknesses in evaluations. For instance, Benton and Cashin and others have found:

  • Students tend to give higher scores to instructors in classes they are motivated to take, and in which they do well.
  • Instructors who teach large courses and entry-level courses tend to receive lower evaluations than those who teach smaller numbers of students and upper-level courses.
  • Evaluation scores tend to be higher in some disciplines (especially humanities) than in others (like STEM).
  • Evaluation scores sometimes drop in the first few semesters of a course redesigned for active learning.
  • Students have little experience in judging their own learning. As the Stanford professor Carl Wieman writes: “It is impossible for a student (or anyone else) to judge the effectiveness of an instructional practice except by comparing it with others that they have already experienced.”
  • Overemphasis on student evaluations often generates cynicism among faculty members about administrators’ belief in the importance of high-quality teaching.

Looked at through that lens, we have not only a need but an obligation to move beyond student evaluations in gauging the effectiveness of teaching. We simply must add dimension and nuance to the process, much as we already do with evaluation of research.

So how do we do that?

At CTE, we have developed a rubric to help departments integrate information from faculty members, peers, and students. Student evaluations are a part of the mix, but only a part. Rather, we have tried to help departments draw on the many facets of teaching into a format that provides a richer, fairer evaluation of instructor effectiveness without adding onerous time burdens to evaluators.

For the most part, this approach uses the types of materials that faculty members already submit and that departments gather independently: syllabi and course schedules; teaching statements; readings, worksheets and other course materials; assignments, projects, test results and other evidence of student learning; faculty reflections on student learning; peer evaluations from team teaching and class visits; and formal discussions about the faculty member’s approach to teaching.

Departments then use the rubric to evaluate that body of work, rewarding faculty members who engage in such approaches as:

  • experimenting with innovative teaching techniques
  • aligning course content with learning goals
  • making effective use of class time
  • using research-based teaching practices
  • engaging students in hands-on learning rather than simply delivering information to them
  • revising course content and design based on evidence and reflection
  • mentoring students, and providing evidence of student learning
  • sharing their work through presentations, scholarship, committee work and other venues

Departments can easily adapt the rubric to fit particular disciplinary expectations and to weight areas most meaningful to their discipline. We have already received feedback from many faculty members around the university. We’ve also asked a few departments to test the rubric as they evaluate faculty members for promotion and tenure, third-year review, and post-tenure review, and we plan to test it more broadly in the fall.

We will continue to refine the rubric based on the feedback we receive. Like teaching itself, it will be a constant work in progress. We see it as an important step toward making innovative teaching more visible, though, and toward making teaching a more credible and meaningful part of the promotion and tenure process. If you’d like to be part of that, let us know.

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This article also appears in Teaching Matters, a publication of the Center for Teaching Excellence.


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.