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End of the Year: Teaching Evaluations

A new year is beginning, and I would like to share a personal reflection of the end of the year as a young college teacher who just received the evaluations made by his students on the courses of the second semester of 2018, or Fall semester, as it is known in the USA. But before I continue, and considering that some readers of this Forum are young scholars working in different countries with different education systems, I will briefly explain the USA system of evaluating young/junior scholars working at colleges and universities.

Although it varies with particularities for each institution, US colleges focus on three main areas to evaluate junior professors who are in the tenure-track process: research, teaching, and services. These areas correspond to young scholar development towards excellence in academic production with significant contribution to the field; achievement of effective teaching in both undergraduate and graduate levels; and the responsibility and activities that are exercised for the department, the university, the local community and the academic community. Three examples of materials that are evaluated to check the development on these areas are: publication in peer-reviewed journals, teaching evaluations from students, and being an active member of department committees. Some colleges and universities add other secondary areas to these; others have very specific ways to define the areas to be evaluated in the tenure-process; but the bottom line is that all colleges and universities aim to find evidences that their junior faculty are moving forward in their research, becoming better teachers for students, and serving the institution in administrative and community matters. The weight for each area also varies from one institution to another. For example, a research university might give more weight to research, establishing very high standards for that, than an undergraduate college that will give more weight to teaching, considering its primary mission is educating undergraduate students.

College and universities from other countries certainly have different criterium and areas to evaluate their faculty. But I believe that research, teaching, and service are areas that have relevance. In Brazil, for example, these areas also have an important role in faculty evaluations for promotion.

I see the necessity and the importance of faculty evaluations. Tenure-track processes are an opportunity for young faculty to grow in the career toward their excellence in research and teaching. Many institutions have mentorship programs in which senior faculty help young colleagues to develop and grow in the profession. In my mind, I don’t see why a college would hire a tenure-track faculty if it does not have interest in his/her growth and promotion. Therefore, mentorship and other programs to help junior professors seem very natural. But I know this does not occur in all places. What is very common in most places is pressure, sometimes within overwhelming work in the shoulders of the new faculty: pressure to publish as much as possible, with quantity suppressing quality; pressure to be acclaimed by students as an amazing professor, but at the same time, be seen from the peers as a tough teacher who does not allow grade inflation; and pressure to be a passive servant who will say yes to any work, especially those that senior faculty do not want to do. On the top of that, academic environment is a reality where not very rarely we can find professors with an inflated ego, contributing to shape very competitive atmosphere that double all the pressure said before. (Considering theology departments, I have to add a note that different perspectives on Catholic Church’s ecclesiology and teaching create divisions and a more vicious competition among peers.)

Returning to teaching evaluations, often enough the end of a semester arrives with a bittersweet taste. It is the good feeling of concluding one more semester and having some days to rest and/or work on those projects we didn’t have time before because of courses we were teaching. However, this sweet taste might come with a bitter flavor from your student evaluations because they were not good as you expected. Or, they are not bad overall, but there are two or three individual student commentaries that make you think your entire performance in this course was a disaster.

Junior faculty are those who are more impacted by student evaluations. First, because colleges and universities are more and more using these evaluations as a core measurement to decide whether a faculty is growing toward excellent teaching. In addition, it is not totally clear how tenure-process committees interpret this data. Second, lack of experience and a natural insecurity that almost everyone has at the beginning of a career might be factors that impact junior faculty’s reading and understanding of this data.

For the first impact, I don’t have a brilliant idea of how this data from students can be better used by tenure-process committees. However, they must consider that this data is not the only one to be considered in a process. Also, the weight of this data must be relative to its objectivity. There is a big dilemma here. On the one hand, this data provides objective numbers for those who are in the tenure-process committees, especially those who are from areas other than teaching, such as administrators. They tend to like these objective numbers. On the other hand, the objective numbers are not from objective subjects after consideration of all variables that can interfere in the final result. For example, gender inequality studies have shown that students tend to score lower their female professor, based on the fact they are female, and students have a worse discipline with course led by female teacher than they have with a male. More and more, college and university are considering this data from student evaluations as a key element for promotion, even with no measurement of variables.

Second, junior faculty who are suffering with their student evaluations and/or those mean commentaries must try to understand this data, considering that you are the best person to interpret these evaluations; why? Because you are the only one who will read these evaluations who know the students evaluating you. Be honest to yourself. These evaluations can genuine help you to improve your teaching, range from your methods to access student learning to your sensitive to student individual difficulties. Don’t be blind to the signs behind the numbers. When you are reading and interpreting this data, consider your experience in the classroom, your relationship with your students, their response to your lectures, questions, and requirements, the effort they put in your course and any other elements that you judge important to be considered in order to understand the dynamism of the course. Thus, you can evaluate what worked and what did not work; what was a good experience and is fair to use again, and what was not a good attempt and must be reformulated or eliminated from your course. Those data from your self-evaluation/reflection will put you in a better position to interpret the data originated from student evaluations. Finally, talk to your mentor (if you have one) or a senior faculty whom you trust and recognize as a professional who wants help you. She/he will help you to see what you do not see on your teaching, help you to interpret the data and create goals and a path toward them in order to achieve excellent teaching. Hoping that this relationship will be supported by trust and companionship, a new space of dialogue and learning will be created for your own growth.

In conclusion, junior faculty never forget that you are humans. Therefore, excellence in teaching is always a human excellence, that is, limited, imperfect and vulnerable to failures. After interpreting student evaluations, take a time to have joy during the school break. I believe that good teachers are those who know how to teach as much as they know how to have joy.