Reform or remove student evaluations of teaching

By Chris Pickett, Prachee Avasthi and Jessica Polka

The retention, promotion, and tenure (RPT) process is a critical part of a faculty member’s career, during which they are ostensibly evaluated on scholarship, teaching, and service. However, a faculty member’s funding and publication track records are typically weighted more heavily as indicators of productivity. As a result, flawed metrics of teaching and service persist.

For example, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) poll students to determine the effectiveness of a faculty member in teaching course material, and are intended to reveal how the faculty member contributes to the institution’s teaching mission. However, SETs are clearly biased against women and underrepresented minorities: female faculty and those from underrepresented backgrounds often receive poorer SET scores than male faculty from well-represented populations, even when other assessments of teaching ability indicate they are of equivalent quality.

The SET has dominated evaluations of teaching, but universities are beginning to implement new methods of teaching evaluation. Three universities—the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Kansas, and the University of Colorado Boulder—have partnered to launch TEval, an effort to pilot programs that develop more effective teaching evaluation practices. In addition, primarily undergraduate institutions with a mission centered on teaching rather than research may have developed alternative methods of evaluating teaching that could be adapted to larger institutions.

The bias in SETs suggests these are poor indicators of teaching ability and may hinder institutional efforts to cultivate a more diverse and equitable environment. Evaluation reforms are still in their early stages and many questions remain around how to best evaluate a faculty member’s teaching abilities. How should universities deal with SETs? Should they be eliminated in favor of less biased evaluations, like peer evaluations or third-party external reviews, or reformed so that the surveys provide a more accurate reflection of the acumen of the teacher? Revising RPT criteria to deemphasize or eliminate SETs would be a positive step toward improving the teaching quality at an institution as well as improve diversity in the professoriate.