When it comes to postsecondary instruction, what does good teaching look like, and how do we assess it? The latter question is an important one for college teachers, department chairs, program directors, and deans, because we assess teaching for so many different purposes: to train and guide our newest instructors and graduate teaching assistants, to evaluate employees for retention and tenure, and to recognize and reward the most outstanding college instructors. Fortunately, there are a few principles we can adhere to when evaluating teachers.
No single measure can adequately capture a teacher’s effectiveness or progress. Just as there are many components of good teaching, there are many facets to evaluating it. Evaluation tools may include classroom observations; mid-semester focus groups; teacher portfolios with syllabi, assignments, and philosophy statements; student evaluations of teaching; and more. No single high-stakes instrument can adequately capture a teacher’s overall effectiveness. Therefore, effective assessment should rely on multiple measures whenever possible.
A good system for teacher training and teacher evaluation should offer opportunities for reflection and dialogue. Good teachers don’t get everything right the first time they try. But they can demonstrate the ability to assess how much their students have learned and to reflect on the effectiveness of a new assignment or activity. They can analyze outcomes and make changes based on a number of factors, including student achievement, student opinion, feedback from classroom observations, and so on. This ability to reflect, assess, and strive toward continued improvement is an important marker of overall effectiveness.
“Good teaching” is defined in part by local norms and institutional and programmatic contexts. While there are many broad principles and practices that mark effective instruction, “good teaching” is also a local construct. As such, college teachers should be evaluated by institutional and programmatic insiders who have the best understanding of the students, program, and institutional goals.
Teacher training and teacher assessment should be rooted in scholarly inquiry—the discovery of new ideas, synthesis of new and existing knowledge, and presentation of results to a wider public. Building scholarship into teacher training/assessment can mean many different things: it might mean that teachers, programs, and students find ways to collaboratively investigate new research questions, gather data, and share results. It might mean that teachers will be involved in local scholarship, such as program assessment, rather than simply being objects of assessment. As we mentor new teachers, we should promote a view of teaching and learning as ongoing processes of discovery and synthesis in which students, teachers, and programs are all stakeholders.
Good teacher training and assessment should make effective use of available technologies while also taking their limitations into account. Some states now mandate that assessments of college faculty be made available within three clicks of a university’s home page for state-funded institutions. Data are now widely available on university web pages, on for-profit sites such as ratemyprofessors.com, and increasingly on social media as students share information about courses and instructors. Individually, instructors might not have control over all of the data being collected about them and their courses. But academic programs and institutions can work to contextualize assessment data and to help faculty and the public interpret and make use of results in responsible ways.
Finally, assessment of teaching should always be formative, even when its primary goal is to make summative decisions. By formative, we refer to assessment that is ongoing, for the purpose of continuous improvement, as opposed to summative, which refers to “end point” assessment (such as assessing for tenure and promotion). But as long as we remain in the profession of teaching, our work is never done. We should strive for continued growth, for pedagogical dialogue and exchange, and for a closer connection among research, discovery, and teaching. Good assessment should foster the sense of teaching as a lifelong vocation, in which we will continue to change and grow in a supportive community of practice.
Amy E. Dayton is associate professor of English at the University of Alabama and the editor of Assessing the Teaching of Writing: Twenty-First Century Trends and Technologies. Her research interests include historiography, community literacy, language attitudes, literacy in literature, assessment/teacher training, composition theory/pedagogy, and models and methods for community outreach.