Talking with faculty about end-of-course ratings is generally a high-stakes conversation where merit raises, promotions, or permanent contracts are on the line or at least hovering in the background of the exchange. Most chairs, program coordinators, or division heads would like to use the conversation for more formative purposes—to engage the faculty member in an exploration of how their teaching is going and where it might be improved. Most faculty would like to use the exchange for more summative purposes—to create an overall favorable impression of their teaching.
For chairs, the challenge is having an honest, substantive discussion of teaching that may start with the rating results but moves beyond the numbers. The challenges these conversations present aren’t always the same, but the likelihood of a productive exchange increases if some time has been spent thinking about what needs to be said and how to say it. What follows is the first article in a three-part series that outlines three different but fairly common conversation scenarios. There is no one right way to have these conversations. They can go in a number of different directions. But there is one desired outcome. The faculty member needs to leave the conversation motivated to continue working on teaching. Teaching excellence is a journey; not a destination.
Let’s start with a scenario of a faculty member whose ratings have stayed the same for many semesters. The ratings are decidedly average.
It’s important before the conversation begins to understand that a certain amount of stability is to be expected for mid-career faculty who routinely teach a lot of the same courses. Even so, with average, stable ratings, the concerns are two-fold; the ratings are average, meaning there’s room for improvement, and stable ratings can be indicative of very little change occurring in the course. The worry here is that the longer the teaching approaches, activities and assignments stay the same, the greater the chance that the teaching (sometimes the teacher) starts to look and feel tired. How long before that happens? We don’t have much in the way of guidelines, research-generated or otherwise, but one can assume it depends, at least to some degree, on the teacher, the teaching load, and the type of courses. So even though rating results don’t say directly, “this teaching is tired”, with stable ratings it’s an issue that ought to be explored further. Plus, with average ratings, encouragement to change is appropriate and should be expected.
Having a bit of a spiel prepared about the value of change is good regardless of the ratings. Every teacher, even very good ones, can improve some aspect of their teaching. Growth and development should be something expected of all teachers and that involves change. Of course, what we’re after are those changes that promote more and better learning for students. But even change that doesn’t accomplish those goals has benefits. Doing something new and different energizes most teachers. It gets them back on their toes and anticipating possible scenarios. And if it doesn’t work all that well or as expected, there are lessons to be learned from failure (what teachers routinely tell students applies to their learning as well). Change is the lifeblood of teaching. All teaching needs regular infusions of new instructional ideas, approaches, activities, techniques, and assignments. Change is something to recommend across the board.
Sometimes faculty resist change because they think they’ve got to change everything—essentially create an entirely new course— and that’s a daunting task, especially if you have a heavy teaching load and are always feeling behind. Targeted change is more do-able. The goal here is to make changes to an aspect of teaching, say the exams, or the written assignments, or the way participation is used and assessed in the course.
Too often faculty approach change in random fashion. They hear something that sounds good and they try it. That’s fine, it accrues the benefits of change, but it still leaves open the possibility that some aspects of teaching are being missed and therefore get executed the same way semester after semester. There’s always room for that new and intriguing technique but systematic change more effectively improves one’s overall teaching. So, the conversation ought to focus on planned change. What aspects of the course might benefit from a strategic review and refresh?
A word of caution. If the faculty member aspires to make a favorable impression, they may be motivated to propose lots of changes, which raises a couple of interesting questions. How much change is enough to keep the teaching fresh and moving forward, and how much change can be sustained? Neither of these questions have been explored all that much either. Teaching, like many skills, can be changed significantly but implementing and sustaining multiple changes is the tougher part of the proposition. When listening to faculty, it’s best not to be impressed with a long list of potential changes and be more positively responsive to detailed plans for relevant change in targeted areas.
It’s also helpful if you can make specific recommendations. Would a change in teaching assignment move this faculty member forward? Is there a course they haven’t taught before or haven’t taught for a long time that they could be assigned to teach? Teaching a course for the first time or after not having taught it for some time often jumps starts teaching that’s become routine.
Most department heads don’t have time to develop a lot of pedagogical expertise or stay current on the latest scholarship, but a department’s climate results from collective contributions. If conversations about teaching regularly occur with faculty throughout the department, then the faculty member who’s been using multiple-choice exams and thinks they’re the only viable testing option can be referred to a faculty member who’s exploring some collaborative testing approaches. Actions that improve the climate for teaching and learning can and should be undertaken by everyone.
Maryellen Weimer is a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State Berks and the longtime the editor of The Teaching Professor.