The missing factor of course evaluation discussion

The University should use its best faculty to teach and improve others.

Harlan Hansen, professor emeritus, College of Education and Human Development

When I arrived as a faculty member of the University of Minnesota in 1968 I remember a publication that rated course instructors. A few years later, I believe, it suddenly ceased publication because of faculty requests, I assume. Forty-three years later, the request for that information by students is still a nagging question.

What do we know up to now about the debate? First, students say they want information that will lead them to more interesting and effective professors. Second, faculty who were quoted in the news minimized the students’ requests as wanting easy courses with high grades by instructors who tell good jokes. Third, and relative to my years of experience at the University, ratings of faculty instruction do not change over the years. “A” professors remain A’s and “F” professors remain F’s. And therein lies the problem. “A” and “B” instructors have no problem sharing their ratings — “C,” “D” and “F” professors have a difficult time seeing their negative rankings posted year after year.

Who is at fault? It’s too easy to blame the ineffective instructors. The missing factor is the University’s lack of a systematic staff development program, which should emphasize improving classroom instruction. The president of the University should charge deans and department heads to put in place programs that can help all instructors improve over time. This would naturally concentrate on newly hired staff who have, on average, seven years to prove they have earned tenure. That same process would also apply to tenured instructors whose course ratings show a great need for improvement.

The key factor is assigning current colleagues who have demonstrated quality teaching skills to share and demonstrate with those in need. While this may appear threatening to individuals, it establishes a community of scholars within each unit where, eventually, everyone can share positive techniques with each other.

It’s more important to demonstrate the improvement of teaching skills by individuals and departments over the years than it is to cover inaction with gripes about students’ demands. To that point, it is amazing how needy faculty can and do improve their teaching over short periods of time when they realize that colleagues and the institution really do care.

I have developed a procedure for accomplishing this task.