Re: IS THERE A METHODOLOGIST IN THE HOUSE
Having just this minute finished grading exams, .... And a day early at that!
I am not an expert on teaching evaluation instruments. Indeed, after 15-20 years, I am not sure there really
could be such an expert. While I have had plenty colleagues in psychology, education, and sociology claim
such expertise regarding measurement, I was convinced many of them actually knew little about defining
the threshold at which we could deem teaching practices to be effective/non-effective. Nonetheless, at
each institution, there always seems to be a faculty group claiming expertise for constructing and
managing teaching evaluation instruments.
For me, these instruments are always flawed, because they assume a static model of teaching premised upon a
few quantifiable activities that (a) can be mastered in short order, and (b) can be perpetually repeated
across every social setting.
To make matters worse, I have seen several fundamentally different instruments at several different
institutions. Logically, this would imply some institutions do not know what they are assessing (or
possibly all?). At one institution which claimed teaching excellence in all it's marketing literature,
the process involved a practice in which junior faculty seeking tenure were required to achieve a summary
measure (e.g., overall mean) that exceed the mean for the institution. The tenured faculty seemed to miss
the irony of that approach to defining teaching excellence.
To make matters worse however, there were also administrators at each institution who too often simply
asked that some lower-level administrative unit provide a summary statistic so as to legitimate
decisions as to who should be kept, and who should be denied tenure on the basis of teaching evaluations. As
if one number could possible capture the essence of teaching.
At another institution, each department was deemed free to create its own items and its own scales. No
commonalities were known to exist across departments, much less within colleges. No attempts were made
to create such either. For its own part, the administration simply required each department use a scale of
1-to-5 for each item evaluated, and to present a summary score for each faculty member that ranged from
1-to-5. For promotion and tenure, the single index score needed to be a 3.0 on a five point scale. No attempt
was made to define what a 3.0 was intended to represent. Faculty members were simply required to achieve a 3.0.
When evaluation instruments are constructed for the purpose of improving teaching, they can be quite
fluid, and quite useful. However, when these instruments are established for the purpose of exclusion
(which is how they are often used), they rarely are effective. Such instruments are not intended to
improve teaching, but instead are intended to deny tenure. And as such, teaching to the instrument is a
remarkably rational strategy. Indeed, it would seem prudent to give our students candy at Halloween and
at Easter, since these dates tend to occur at about the same time as assessment instruments are handed out.
The fact that educators everywhere have forever been seeking to create and recreate a summary scale of
items which can universally define teaching excellence across classes, clusters of students, course
content, departments, colleges and institutions, suggests the problem in not with the variance in
scores across faculty. The flaw is that we are participating in the process of excluding faculty, and
ignoring the responsibility to teach each other how to teach better.
Peace to each
Robert J. Hironimus-Wendt, Ph.D.
Sociology and Anthropology
Western Illinois University
1 University Circle
Macomb, IL 61455-1390
phone: (309) 298-1457
fax: (309) 298-1857
"You must surround your students with models of
straightforward conduct, clarified character, and
open reasonableness, for I believe it is in the hope
of seeing such models that many serious people
go to lectures rather than more conveniently
reading books" (C. Wright Mills  1963: 371-372).
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