Evaluating and Improving Your Teaching

Faculty who take teaching seriously will inevitably ask
themselves one especially important question: “How
can I become a more effective teacher?” The question
implies that an individual’s teaching, no matter how good it
may be, can become better. Its answers can lead to improved
teaching practices and student learning. Faculty may have
been “perfect” in the classroom yesterday, but it is almost
impossible to string together a week of such days, let alone
an entire semester’s worth.

Pondering this question is the first step on the road to
helping one’s students learn more effectively. The second
step is to seek answers, which often leads faculty to explore
two effective teaching strategies: reading the teaching
literature and seriously evaluating their teaching. A review
of this literature is beyond the scope of this article, although
good starting points include McKeachie (2002) and Perlman,
McCann, and McFadden (1999, 2004), and the journal

Teaching of Psychology. Instead, we focus on different
strategies for evaluating teaching.

Why Evaluate Teaching?

The evaluation of teaching has two purposes. The first,
called formative evaluation, is aimed squarely at improving
teaching. It centers on two questions:

  • “Am I an effective teacher?”
  • “How can I become a more effective teacher?”

Formative evaluation emphasizes personal reflection
and growth, and finding new and better ways to convey
information to students, helping them to appreciate the subject
matter, and empowering them to become self-learners.

The second purpose emphasizes accountability and
addresses two questions:

  • Am I a good teacher relative to my peers?
  • Is my teaching an aid or hindrance to tenure, promotion,
    and merit salary?

This type of evaluation, called summative evaluation,
entails processes that often make faculty uncomfortable

— after all, professional status and money are on the line.

Interestingly, both types of evaluation entail many of
the same assessment processes. Indeed, if teachers focused
primarily on becoming better teachers through formative
evaluation, they would have little concern about the outcome
of summative evaluation. For this reason, we emphasize
formative evaluation.

What Is To Be Evaluated?

When teachers consider teaching and its evaluation, they
generally think about what they do in the classroom: the
clarity of lectures, the extent to which they engage students
in discussion, and so on, but teaching involves more than
classroom performance. Faculty prepare for hours in advance
of class, create and grade tests, and meet students during office
hours, to name but a few teaching activities. Students should
learn something about our subject matter because of what
faculty do outside of class, and the outcome of this process
also is relevant for evaluation. Thus, a broader perspective on
teaching encompasses four dimensions: course organization
and preparation, classroom performance, approachability and
availability, and assessment of student learning.

Course Organization and Preparation

In evaluating teaching, faculty often overlook course
organization and preparation in deference to classroom
performance. How they prepare and organize their courses
should drive what they actually do in the classroom, and thus
what students learn. Ideally, courses are organized around
what faculty wish their students to learn. Once this issue has
been addressed, teachers must entertain three other important
questions to evaluate course preparation and organization:

  • Are these outcomes appropriate to the level and content of
    the course?
  • How do I connect these outcomes with specific course
    activities?
  • Will these outcomes stimulate intellectual growth and
    enjoyment of learning?

Answers to these questions should appear in the class
syllabus and unambiguously convey to students: student
learning outcomes, the nature of the subject matter, the
teacher’s orientation to learning (e.g., lecture versus a greater
emphasis on student involvement), the kinds of classroom
learning activities practiced, how students will be engaged,
the approach to assessing student learning, and classroom
management practices.

Classroom Performance

Being able to communicate psychological knowledge
clearly and enthusiastically is one key to effective student
learning, and therein rests a secret to becoming a truly great
teacher. Becoming a successful teacher hinges on teachers’
abilities to establish rapport, an interpersonal dynamic that
increases the likelihood that students will pay attention to
and understand the teacher’s message. Essential aspects
of building rapport include, among other things, learning
students’ names, using relevant examples, treating students
respectfully, using appropriate humor, and starting and ending
class on time (Buskist & Saville, 2004). Clearly, the quality
of faculty teaching transcends their disciplinary knowledge
— it includes their personal characteristics as well.

Approachability and Availability

Faculty demeanor in the classroom influences their
students’ willingness to initiate one-on-one contact with
them outside of class. If students perceive faculty to be
supportive and caring, they are likely to perceive them as
being approachable outside the classroom. Questions to ask
to assess approachability and availability include:

  • What is my interactive style with students?
  • Do I encourage students to meet with me?
  • Am I in my office during my office hours?
  • Do I pay attention to my students when they are talking to me?
  • Do I respond promptly and courteously to student
    phone calls and e-mail?

Assessment of Student Learning

Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the evaluation
of teaching is how faculty assess students’ learning. This
oversight is perplexing because the ultimate goal of teaching
is, of course, to facilitate student learning. Teachers need
a logical rationale for (a) assessing how well they are
accomplishing this goal, and (b) contemplating possible
answers to several questions helpful in their teaching:

  • What is the relation of my assessment protocol to my
    student learning outcomes?
  • How frequently do I assess student learning and why?
  • What formats do I use to assess student learning and why?
  • How promptly do I return graded materials?
  • How much feedback do I provide students regarding their
    learning?
  • What procedures do I use for remediation of poor
    student performance?
  • Are my assessment and grading procedures fair?

Teachers’ approaches to assessment of student learning
ideally should reflect their commitment to helping students
become more effective learners. Sometimes, however,
the nature of exams and other graded assignments reflect
teachers’ needs. The less time faculty spend grading and
providing feedback, the more time they have for other
responsibilities and interests. In the latter case, however,
students might learn less than they might otherwise.
Moreover, this approach may impede student learning by
offering only limited feedback on their performance.

Choices in Assessment of Teaching

A teacher’s preparation and organization, classroom
performance, approachability and availability, and assessment of
students’ learning are all fair game for evaluation. The question,
of course, is how to go about the assessment process.

Who Provides Evaluative Data?

Students are the most common source of evaluative
information. When most faculty think “teaching evaluation,”

they imagine their students completing a survey at the end
of the semester. Although the validity of data from student
evaluations has been questioned (e.g., Greimel-Fuhrmann &
Geyer, 2003), they remain a primary source assessment tool.
Nonetheless, additional forms of assessment, such as selfassessment
and peer review, provide useful supplemental
information that is not available from student evaluations
such as feedback regarding developing appropriate student
learning outcomes, developing and revising syllabi,
understanding the relationship of student learning outcomes
to student learning, and creating effective formats for
assessing student learning.

When Should the Evaluation be Conducted?

Evaluations are most commonly given at the end of the
semester providing a snapshot of teaching over the entire
course. The disadvantage to this approach is that it provides
no opportunity for a teacher to address problems that may
exist in the class, and so students’ learning and enjoyment
of the course may suffer.

The alternative is to evaluate one’s teaching earlier in the
semester. That way, the end-of-the-semester evaluation can be
used, in part, to gauge how successfully a teacher has resolved
previously identified problems. Students frequently voice
their appreciation of a teacher’s willingness to incorporate
their suggestions into improving their classroom learning
experience.

Some faculty may wish to evaluate their teaching more
than once or twice a semester, even weekly, but students
may find such frequent assessment obsessive and annoying.
Instead, faculty may wish to solicit feedback from students
when trying a new technique or demonstration for the first
time or when making other modifications to teaching. Two
or three evaluations per semester will likely provide ample
data for assessing your teaching effectiveness.

Although most institutions typically have a required
instrument for end-of-the-semester evaluations, developing
one’s own questions for an earlier evaluation allows a faculty
to tap student perceptions that the required instrument
might overlook. Such “home grown” evaluations also
allow questions that faculty deem especially critical to
understanding their approach to teaching. For example, if
teachers incorporate specific types of learning activities not
reflected on the institutional instrument, they may wish to
develop a few questions to address their effectiveness.

What Assessment Techniques Might be Used?

Student feedback, self-assessment, and peer evaluation
may be used alone or in combination. Data can be collected
several ways ranging from the typical paper and pencil
course evaluations containing forced-choice and open-ended
items to in-class learning assessment techniques (e.g., the
muddiest point, in which students express to their teacher, in
writing, the point or points that they had the most difficulty
understanding during lecture — see Angelo & Cross, 1993),
and student focus groups.

Paper and pencil evaluations provide global information
regarding overall teaching effectiveness and typically center
on teacher qualities. In-class learning assessment focuses
on what students learn during any given class period.
Lastly, randomly selected students may be brought together
outside of class to meet in focus groups to provide feedback
on specific aspects of a course — clarity of lectures, testing
and grading procedures, and so on. Focus groups also are
useful in providing feedback regarding a teacher’s rapport
with students and building stronger rapport.

Self-assessment techniques provide valuable data
regarding all aspects of one’s teaching, and like student
evaluations, exist in several formats including informal
reflection after class, course portfolios, videotape analysis,
teaching journals, review and revision of a teaching
philosophy statement, and comparisons of student learning
outcomes to actual student achievement. Informal reflection
involves assessing how well faculty perform on any given day.
One useful metric for these judgments is the extent to which
students appear attentive and engaged in class discussion.
“Great” days, of course, are those in which students generate
many questions, comments, and insightful remarks.

Daunting as it may seem, watching oneself on videotape
captures how one’s teaching personality, mannerisms, and
communication skills appear to students. This process is
extremely beneficial in identifying problems and strengths
in classroom delivery.

Writing about one’s approach to teaching as well as actual
teaching experiences creates opportunities for reflection
— the chance to lead an “examined life” as a teacher.
Contemplating both what one does well and poorly as a
teacher may provide insights into strategies and actions to
undertake to become better.

Finally, determining how well students achieve course
objectives permits a teacher to identify ways to help students
achieve these goals in the future. It also provides a means
of assessing how well course preparation and organization
help students achieve these outcomes.

Peer evaluations most often take the form of a departmental
colleague visiting a class and providing feedback. However,
peers may also analyze video of colleagues’ teaching,
review syllabi (e.g., learning outcomes, content, and grading
procedures), and review their philosophy of teaching
statement and teaching portfolio.

Most faculty members’ departmental peers have not
been trained in formal analysis of teaching strategies and
style, so they may not provide concrete suggestions for
teaching improvement. However, departmental peers do
know psychology and often provide helpful suggestions
regarding course content, demonstrations and examples
of specific topics and issues, and the relationship between
student learning objectives and content. Peers also know the
student population and can offer insights on how best “to
reach” specific segments of that population.

Keep in mind that because faculty have on-going social
relationships with their colleagues, they may be reticent to
share their true feelings. In other words, it may difficult to
find a peer willing to provide completely honest feedback
on one’s teaching.

Using Evaluative Data to Improve Teaching

Some general guidelines provide a comprehensive
approach to evaluating and improving teaching. Global
feedback such as “You’re a really good teacher” or “You
need to be more approachable” is not helpful in identifying
ways to improve teaching. Seek feedback that emphasizes
specific behaviors to change or to be adopted. For example,
“You did a great job getting our term papers back to us two
days after we turned them in” or “I sent you an e-mail three
days ago and you still haven’t answered it” identify precise
behavior a teacher may need to change or maintain.

More Feedback is Better Than Less

The more feedback teachers gather, the more
information they will have with which to assess their
teaching effectiveness. Although the numerical information
from objective portions of student evaluations may provide
the overall impression that students have of one’s teaching,
faculty should gather as much specific written commentary
from students and peers as they can. This information is
useful in interpreting the numerical data and is more likely
to pinpoint specific aspects of teaching that are meritorious
or need improvement.

Take Context Into Consideration

As faculty examine their teaching strengths and
weaknesses, they should consider context as a potential
factor influencing their teaching and students’ motivation to
learn. Sometimes students’ willingness to study for classes
succumbs to their extracurricular interests. If so, a teacher’s
task is to inspire students to adopt more effective study habits.
At other times, teaching may not be appropriate for the course
level, especially for new faculty who, coming right from
graduate school or a post-doctoral experience, demand that
undergraduates read nearly as much as they did.

In addition, some courses faculty teach may be prerequisites
for other courses in the curriculum. Colleagues who teach these
other courses expect students to have particular knowledge and
skills when the prerequisite course is completed.

Seek Consistent Themes Within and Across Evaluative Measures

Examine evaluative information as a gestalt and look for
patterns. Skillful teachers reflect on both critical and positive
themes, and link valid criticisms — those comments that
identify teaching deficits — to specific teaching behaviors they
can adjust to improve teaching effectiveness. They do not focus
on criticism to the extent that they overlook what is positive
about their teaching. Experienced teachers know that the key
to teaching enhancement is to refine what they do well while
simultaneously improving what they do less than well.

Ignore the Lone Voice of Gloom

No matter how good student teaching evaluations may be,
they are rarely perfect. Most faculty have at least one student
with whom they do not connect despite their best efforts.
Sometimes they do not know that this student exists until
they receive their teaching evaluations and read a comment
such as: “You are the single worst teacher I have ever had. I
should get my tuition back for this class.” For most faculty,
this comment is the one that they will remember best, even
when the bulk of the other commentary is glowing. Ignore
student commentary that is mean spirited or harshly critical,
or offered without any evidence to substantiate it, especially
when it is provided by a single student. This advice also
applies to extremely positive commentary.

Use Multiple Measures

Do not limit evaluation to a single source (e.g., students) or
a specific teaching dimension (e.g., classroom performance).
Faculty have the best chances of learning about their teaching
and improving it if they gather evaluative information from
both students and peers on all aspects of their teaching.

Develop an Individualized Assessment Plan for Each of Your Courses

Adopt a reflective approach to the evaluation of teaching.
As teachers prepare syllabi for next semester, they need to
consider how they will assess their teaching in each of your
classes. Faculty may wish to incorporate evaluative plans
involving their students into their syllabi. Those who do
so often contact colleagues prior to each semester, whom
they wish to visit their classes or review their syllabi and
presentation materials. Such advance planning allows teachers
to design assessment strategies tailored to providing specific
information about their teaching strengths and weaknesses.

Conclusion

Teaching is a dynamic blend of performance art and
science that is influenced in no small measure by the teacher’s
personality, the students’ motivation, and institutional
vagaries. Becoming a better teacher requires understanding
how these factors interact and change over time—and
such comprehension seems most likely to be prompted by
intentional and reflective evaluation and analysis.

WILLIAM BUSKIST is alumni professor and distinguished professor in the Teaching of Psychology at Auburn University. His research interests center on the qualities and behaviors of master teachers, development of student-teacher rapport, and assessment of effective teaching and student learning.

JARED KEELEY is a second year graduate student in the clinical psychology program at Auburn University. He is the past Chair of the Graduate Student Teaching Association of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

JESSICA IRONS is second year doctoral student in the experimental psychology program at Auburn University. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Augusta State University.

References and Further Reading:

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Benassi, V. A., & Seidel, L. F. (in press). Using student evaluations to improve teaching. In W. Buskist & S. F. Davis (Eds.), Handbook of the teaching of psychology. Malden, MA:Blackwell.

Buskist, W., & Saville, B. K. (2004). Rapport-building: Creating positive emotional contexts for enhancing teaching and learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (2004), Lessons learned: practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 2), (pp. 149-155). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Greimel-Fuhrmann, B., & Geyer, A. (2003). Students' evaluation of teachers and instructional quality: Analysis of relevant factors based on empirical evaluation research. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 283, 229-238.

Knapper, C., & Cranton, P. (Eds.). (2001). New directions for teaching and learning: No. 88. Fresh approaches to the evaluation of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, K. G. (Ed.) (2001). New Directions for Teaching and Learning: No. 87. Techniques and strategies for interpreting student evaluations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies,research, and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Perlman, B., McCann, L. I., & McFadden, S. H. (1999). Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Perlman, B., McCann, L. I., & McFadden, S. H. (2004). Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 2). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Observer Vol.19, No.4 April, 2006

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