Something very important happened over the summer: The Ryerson Faculty Union won its case against the university in Ontario Superior Court against the use of student teaching evaluations in tenure and promotion decisions (it was silent on merit pay, but I’m fairly sure that’s because Ryerson academics don’t have it – as legal precedent I’m 100% certain merit pay is affected, too). This means literally every university in the country is going to have to re-think the evaluation of teaching – which is a fantastic opportunity to have some genuinely interesting, important national conversations on the subject.
Let’s talk about the decision itself. Technically, it did not tell Ryerson to stop using teaching evaluations in tenure/promotion decisions. What it said was that the university could not use averages from teaching evaluations in tenure/promotion decisions because the averages are meaningless. It left the door open to using distributions of scores, and I think it left the door open to adjusting the averages for various factors. The experts brought in by the Ryerson Faculty Association showed convincingly (see here and here) that student evaluations have been shown to have biases concerning (among other things) race and gender. I think it’s within the spirit of the decision to at least allow the university to use adjusted scores from the student evaluations. For instance, if women are systematically ranked lower by (say) 0.5 on a 5-point scale (or say by a third of a standard deviation if you prefer to calculate it that way), just tack on that amount to the individuals score. Really not that difficult.
The problem, I think, is that there are a lot of voices out there that actually want to do away with student input on teaching altogether. To them, the fact that bias can be corrected is irrelevant. The fact that you can ask way better questions about teaching than are currently being asked, or that you can use questionnaires to focus more on the learning experience than on the instructor, is irrelevant. To them, any student evaluation is just a “satisfaction survey” and what do students know anyway?
But I personally think it is untenable that student voices be ignored completely. Students spend half their lives in class rooms. They know good teaching when they see it. They may have a whole bunch of implicit biases which they transfer to their assessment, but the idea that their input is worthless, that they are simply too ignorant to give valuable feedback – which is what a lot of the dismissals of their value amount to – is, frankly, arrogant snobbery. Anyone pushing that line is probably less against the concept of student teaching evaluation than he/she is against the concept of evaluation tout court.
(Don’t dismiss this point. The Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations has been very vocal in its campaign against teaching evaluations in the last few years, yet not once to my knowledge has it suggested an alternative. I get the problems with the current system, but if you’re not putting forward alternatives, you’re not arguing for better accountability, you’re arguing for less accountability).
There are alternatives, however. One that universities could consider is the system in use at the University of California Merced, which Beckie Supiano profiled in a great little piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. The Merced program, known as SATAL (Students Assessing Teaching and Learning) trains students in classroom observation, interviewing and reporting techniques. Small teams of students then assess individual classes – some focussing on instructor behavior, others focussing on gathering and synthesizing student feedback. In other words, it professionalizes student feedback.
The real answer here of course is that multiple perspectives on teaching are required both for formative and summative purposes. The Ryerson Faculty Association was right to push back on using averages. The trick now is to use the opportunity this ruling provides to put the assessment of teaching on a more solid footing right across the country. It’s a particular opportunity for student unions: a once-in-a-generation chance to really define what is meant by good teaching and putting it at the heart of the tenure and promotion process. Any student union thinking about focussing on any other issue for the next 24 months is wasting a golden opportunity.