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Assessing teaching effectiveness: More than student evaluations

Do students’ opinions of teaching effectiveness have merit? Students don’t necessarily know about teaching methodology, or the affordances and constraints that play into course design and in-class teaching. So, should their course evaluation feedback be taken into consideration when evaluating teaching effectiveness, and if so, what weight should it have?

blow-breakfast-cheese-723031Yes, they should. An analogy I once read highlights the relevance of student input: “Saying that students can’t evaluate teaching is kind of like saying that diners can’t evaluate their meals.” Think about it: We can assess certain qualities of the meals we’re served in restaurants because we’ve had a lot of experience eating restaurant meals, not because we’re necessarily schooled chefs. University students can assess facets of classroom teaching because they’ve had years of experience being taught in classrooms, not because they’re schooled in teaching methodology. Indeed, if I reflect on comments students have written in my course evaluations, only students could have provided me with certain types of feedback. Who else could have weighed in with first-hand experience to let me know that I sometimes let discussions run too long or that allowing students a couple of minutes to think about their answers to my questions gave them more confidence to respond?

charts-cup-of-coffee-desk-1345089Given that teaching is a multi-faceted endeavour, course evaluation data should be viewed as one data source among several for assessing teaching effectiveness. Data from multiple sources can illustrate a more complete picture of teaching effectiveness. (Again, I’m not the first to make this point.)

You might be wondering how McGill University addresses the matter. Actually, McGill is explicit in its acknowledgement that teaching effectiveness can and should be demonstrated through multiple sources:

  • McGill’s course evaluation site states: “The feedback you obtain from your students through MERCURY course evaluations is one input to an ongoing reflective process that you should engage in to improve your teaching and future offerings of courses.”
  • The University’s guidelines for preparing teaching portfolios for tenure or reappointment list a number of types of evidence that can speak to teaching effectiveness, among them comments from peer observers and invitations to teach due to reputation; (pp. 20-21).
  • The University’s Guidelines for search committees: Assessing prospective colleagues’ potential teaching ability describes various ways that McGill values teaching.

If you’re looking for more ideas about how to document the effectiveness of your teaching practice, take a look at the University of Calgary’s Guide for Providing Evidence of Teaching (pdf or Word doc available toward the bottom of the page) – a hot-off-the-press publication which offers ways to illustrate the impact of a wide range of teaching activities.

What ideas do you have for illustrating teaching effectiveness?

Senior Academic Associate at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services.; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning; will work for chocolate (Photo credit: Owen Egan)

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