Teaching assessment methods may soon broaden

Using several methods to evaluate faculty teaching effectiveness, instead of relying principally on student ratings of instructors, will be one focus of a set of recommendations expected later this spring from a task force studying how to improve teaching assessment.

After meeting throughout the academic year and studying similar efforts at other institutions, the joint task force -- a collaboration between the Faculty Senate and the provost's office, via the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) -- has agreed on the broad strokes of its proposal. The underlying intent is to encourage a multipronged approach to teaching evaluations -- holistic deliberation common in promotion and tenure reviews but not always in annual evaluations or faculty awards decisions.

"There's a reason why we put multiple legs on a chair," said genetics, development and cell biology professor Jo Anne Powell-Coffman, a member of the task force.

Task force members

  • Jonathan Sturm, Faculty Senate (co-chair)
  • Sara Marcketti, CELT (co-chair)
  • Zahra Barkley, Student Government
  • Jan Boyles, LAS
  • David Cantor, Business
  • Norin Chaudhry, Graduate and Professional Student Senate
  • Amanda Fales-Williams, Vet Med
  • Rose Martin, Human Sciences
  • Michael Muecke, Design
  • David Peterson, LAS
  • Jo Anne Powell-Coffman, AgLS
  • Diane Rover, Engineering
  • Henry Schenck, LAS

The 13-member task force, which includes two students, a department chair and former chair, and current faculty, is intended to generate the widest possible perspective and input on the issue of faculty evaluation. It aims to make teaching evaluation more meaningful, timely and fair to all, improving the quality of teaching at Iowa State while disenfranchising no one.

The group is still working on specific recommendations, which it expects to release in late April for the Faculty Senate to consider during the 2019-20 academic year, said task force co-chair Jonathan Sturm, a music professor and the faculty senate's president-elect. But Sturm and co-chair Sara Marcketti, CELT director and professor in apparel, merchandising and design, outlined three areas the recommendations will touch on.

Rethinking student ratings

One set of recommendations will suggest best practices and guidelines for administering and using student ratings, which students voluntarily submit after completing a course. Researchers say the evaluations can show signs of gender and racial bias. The task force doesn't plan to call for eliminating student evaluations, however.

"They're consumers, and their opinion is valid. We want to always have that as an included part of this process. But is that the only thing we want?" Sturm said.

As part of an Association of American Universities grant to support undergraduate STEM education, Powell-Coffman brought two experts to campus last fall to present to the task force, including Marcketti's counterpart at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, Betsy Barre, who encouraged continuing to use student feedback. Despite their flaws, Barre told the task force, student ratings remain an important piece of evidence.

In addition to establishing parameters for using student ratings, Marcketti said, the task force may suggest changes related to how and when the data is shared with faculty. Practices vary between departments, and consistency would be valuable, she said.  

Widening the lens

Urging departments to use a rubric scoring system to evaluate a broad spectrum of teaching data would ensure student ratings don't become the sole measurement by default. Some departments already take a wider lens in teaching assessment, using various methods, Marcketti said.

"In the absence of other forms of assessing teaching effectiveness, it often comes down to that one student evaluation of teaching number," she said.

Other annual evaluation approaches already adopted by peer institutions could include reviewing syllabi, peer observation and self-reflection.

The additional work this could add for faculty may prompt concerns, but Marcketti said the task force is taking thoughtful approaches to demands on time. A more involved plan for evaluating teaching likely would streamline over time, Sturm said. The rubric also will help speed the process, Powell-Coffman said. It is easier to review colleagues' course materials or observe them in the classroom when the assessments are based on quantitative scoring, she said.

The other expert who presented to the task force was Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, where several departments are using rubric systems to broaden their teaching evaluations. A big takeaway from Greenhoot was to allow departments to set their own rubrics, based on what they value and the nature of their courses, Powell-Coffman said.

"Just to be having those conversations is good for the program, and to have clarity on those issues is good for the faculty," she said.

Handbook review

The third area the task force plans to address is the faculty handbook section on teaching evaluation. Proposed additions could, for instance, provide guidance to both faculty and department chairs on how to document effective teaching and the role of student ratings in that process, Marcketti said.

For more information

Faculty or staff who want to provide input to the task force can contact any member or email Sturm at jsturm@iastate.edu or Marcketti at sbb@iastate.edu. An open forum for faculty to weigh in on the proposal will be held after the recommendations are released.