I’d like to extend a topic that I brought up recently – about the difficulty in evaluating excellence in teaching.
I danced around the central conundrum, by highlighting all the ways that we do, and don’t, evaluate teaching on our campuses. What I didn’t bring up is: what is it, exactly, that we are sizing up when we decide how good someone’s teaching is?
What I argued at the time is that most people use the template of their own teaching (or perhaps one’s aspirations for one’s own teaching) as a model for evaluating others. This operational definition of how excellence is measured doesn’t actually specify what characteristics define excellence.
Let’s set aside the evaluation problem, and ask: What is excellent teaching?
Nearly all of our evaluations focus on the process of teaching: what happens in class on a day to day basis.
What really matters is what happens in the end: what is the product of teaching?
If we focus on process, then we measure things like specific items in the curriculum, demeanor, what the assignments and exams look like, and classroom performance in the theatrical sense.
If we focus on product, then we look at outcomes: exam performance, student satisfaction, long-term professional growth, and — from the administration’s perspective — alumni giving.
You imagine that a quality process leads to a quality product, however a veneer of quality might not lead to a long-term high quality product. What educational practices that get high ranks in the evaluation system actually contribute to positive outcomes in the long term? How much of what we do in teaching doesn’t result in long-term learning but looks like quality teaching in the short term? For starters, the first thing that comes to mind is the use of overly detailed powerpoints that are shared with the class online for
cramming studying for exams. Students love it, it raises satisfaction, the professor looks well prepared and: will students know any of it the next day, or how about five years later?
Just as we can design an individual class with backward planning, we can think of the whole college experience this way to inform what students really need to get what we want them to get out of the college experience. What constitutes an “excellent” college education? Whatever it is, then excellence in faculty is when they deliver on that goal.
In my view, when you graduate from college, the school has done its job if the product is:
- articulate in thought, words and writing
- able to differentiate between opinion and reason and has personal values informed by both
- broadly interested in the world and all it has to offer
- conversant in literature, art, history, geography, science, mathematics, philosophy, civics and more
- able to separate style from substance
- struggling to understand the faiths, or the lack thereof, of those in their midst
- able to readily explain to any novice the basic tenets of their specialty
- can perform admirably on a summative exam in the subject of one’s specialty (e.g., subject GRE)
- reading the goddamn newspaper or its equivalent on a regular basis
- able to whiff out pseudoacademic thinking (like Malcom Gladwell), pseudoscience and shabby reasoning
- not taking oneself too seriously
- treats other people as they would like to be treated
Those are my aspirations for what college should do for everyone. I wrote this on the fly but I imagine it would resemble to some degree what you think a “liberal arts education” is supposed to look like.
Just as it’s not the job of a K-12 teacher to merely teach the state standards, it’s not my job to cover the expected learning outcomes of my course. I’m working on providing one piece of a holistic college experience. Am I successful at this? No. But it’s a goal. Since I’m at a state comprehensive institution and all the talk is “career-training-this” and “job-preparation-that” we are really botching these fundamentals. My heart soared when our newish provost said, in his first address to the faculty, that he didn’t want to see any more business regarding what a college degree does for students, he wanted to hear more about what a college education does for students. In our environment, that idea is hard to deliver in deed, but I’m excited to see the emphasis nonetheless.
How do we measure teaching excellence? Foremost, students need to emerge from the class knowing the course material. In particular, they need to know it deeply: well beyond their graduation dates. Truly excellent teachers inspire lifelong learning, excitement tied to discovery in the discipline, and an academic ethos that pervades all aspects of life. There is a multiplicity of routes to this destination.
This is often why teaching is considered to be an art, because what works for one person might not work for another. The trickier part, though, is knowing what works. This might not be measurable at the end of a semester.