Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Consider This Opinion Piece: The Tyranny of Student Evaluations

Categories: ,
UAlberta Course Evaluations
Faculty members are generally rather dubious about the effectiveness of student evaluations of teaching and I believe such skepticism to be well founded. Even when a chair’s letter accompanies the USRIs, the dependence on student evaluations of teaching can lead to all sorts of problems, some of them quite unexpected.

While at some institutions the popularity contest sparked by student evaluations leads to progressively eroding standards, this does not seem to be the case at the U of A. Rather it has been my experience that instructors at the U of A work hard to develop courses that maintain academic standards balanced against the demands of the USRIs. The problem is that once they have found this balance, they are very reluctant to make any changes.

Why risk lower USRI scores by trying blended learning? Experiential learning, the internationalization of the classroom, project based learning and other curricular innovations are often disruptive for students. Without any mechanisms or opportunity for the systematic demonstration of teaching professionalism, instructors are effectively at the mercy of the USRIs. This leads to a stifling of risk and a disincentive to experiment and innovate.

The GFC Policy Manual argues that the evaluation of teaching needs to be both formative and summative. Neither USRIs nor a chair’s letter necessarily meet either of these goals. This is why GFC calls for a multifaceted evaluation that includes USRIs. Calling the combination of student evaluations and a letter from a chair multifaceted seems a little sketchy. The obvious answer to this is to make the USRIs a part of a much more comprehensive evaluation of teaching.

What is really necessary is a teaching dossier, portfolio or profile, (my preferred term since it suggests brevity). A teaching profile is a truly multifaceted document and is the means by which USRIs can be contextualized. A profile liberates faculty from the tyranny of USRIs and functions independently of administrators. It allows the faculty member to present longitudinal data, to describe the nature of the teaching innovations undertaken and demonstrate teaching effectiveness. The chair’s letter and the USRIs will always be part of a profile, but within a broader profile, the USRI results now have a context framed by the faculty member themselves. The University of Toronto  has implemented what I would consider to be the best example of this practice currently available within Canada. There, teaching Dossiers are now required for all junior faculty members who are under consideration for a promotion or tenure.

But making room for teaching professionalism like this requires changes that are neither easy nor quick, but rather are strategic and long term. Creating a teaching profile involves work that, at present, is neither required nor rewarded here. So it is hardly surprising that it remains the exception at the U of A. “If teaching is worth examining at all, then a reasonable commitment of time and resources must be made by both instructors and administrators.” (CAUT Teaching Dossier p.12) Faculty at the U of A have been stretched thin for some time now, and I don’t believe they have either the time or resources- not to mention any incentive- to make the effort to evaluate teaching in a meaningful fashion. But this is a topic for another day.

Originally published December 9, 2015.

Duston Moore, Educational Developer, formerly with the Centre for Teaching and Learning

Although he grew up in Edmonton, Duston completed all his university studies in Belgium where he took degrees in theology and philosophy. For over a decade he taught philosophy in Indiana and was involved in developing and managing curricular innovation. Duston previously worked with the U of A's Centre for Teaching and Learning where he provided support for the U of A's instructors.



  1. When I arrived at the UofA in 1987 and attended an orientation seminar for new faculty, the USRI was described as a tool for instructors to obtain feedback on student perceptions of how a class worked, BUT were specifically not a valid instrument for evaluating teaching quality and effectiveness. They were shared with the chair of the department, but with no one else.
    Since then, with no change in the USRI questions, format or scoring, these questionnaires have become the central tool for teaching evaluation and are made publicly available to students who have no idea what a useless thing with which they are being presented.
    For a university that aspires to to ranking in the country and the world, using the USRI for a purpose for which it was never designed is astoundingly bad.
    GFC, the Deans, the Chairs and the central administration need to institute a complete overhaul of what passes for teaching evaluation if they do not want the claim that the UofA values quality teaching to look like the joke that it currently is.

  2. Hi Dustin,
    What you're arguing for is entirely consistent with Boyer's original model of scholarship of teaching and his collaborator Glassick's (2000) follow-up, which taken together imply that teaching can and should be assessed with the same rigour as other forms of scholarship. So USRI would be only one form of assessment and e.g. peer review would be another, and a prima facie instructional design analysis would logically be another.


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