University-wide Conversation on Teaching
A University-wide Teaching Conversation initiative was launched last December by the Academic Affairs Committee of the Faculty Senate to engage faculty in each school and department to look again at our teaching and to report what we saw and how we can continue to improve. This action and its results are noteworthy in several ways.
First, rarely are broad university actions initiated other than administratively or in response to a crisis. The Teaching Conversation was a grass-roots movement led by members of the Faculty Senate at a time when our teaching is not under attack.
Second, the magnitude of the response in such a short period of time is a positive and significant indication of the sense of community and collegiality across our university. Every school participated in some way, and in many cases, individual departments held their own conversations and made reports on them.
Building from our Self-Study process, we began by publicizing some of our own outstanding teaching practices. Rather than focusing on teaching ideas from other universities, we featured innovative and creative practices that are being used here at the University of Virginia. We thought it would be more helpful and enticing for a department here to learn, for example, that the Department of Physics has a Teaching Committee, rather than learn that Duke University uses teaching committees. We knew this process would uncover many imaginative and effective teaching practices in our own backyards that could be adapted and adopted by neighboring units.
The rich diversity in this University is, as you would expect, reflected in the various Teaching Conversations. The definition of "excellent teaching" varies according to the characteristics of the discipline and the audience of learners. The specific ideas and recommendations, however, all have features that can be modified to fit the teaching purpose and culture of each department or school.
Amid the rich diversity of conversations, a common theme did emerge: The need to reduce isolation and separateness in teaching came through again and again in examples of improved practices. The ease with which we now collaborate in research can be duplicated in the arena of teaching. Numerous examples of such collaboration are provided, including specific types of partnerships and teams in teaching. It also was suggested that common collections of teaching information be publicized and made more accessible, through such avenues as department handbooks, web sites, and the Teaching Resource Center. The need to evaluate courses in their relation to other courses in a major, rather than only as a single course was emphasized. The use of Teaching Committees within departments and schools was discussed. The concept of mentoring was examined for both junior and senior faculty, with divergent views expressed regarding the purpose and type of informal and formal mentoring programs that would be most conducive to the improvement of teaching.
Thanks to each of you who participated in these conversations, and to those who will join the conversations in the future. The suggestions that follow in the categories of Evaluation, Development, and Incentives are thoughtful and practical. The most valuable measure of our teaching at the University of Virginia, however, may well be the continuing, collaborative, and collegial conversations we choose to hold in the future about our teaching.
Summary of Department and School Conversations
View Full Reports
The reports from the teaching conversations devoted considerable energy to discussing evaluation, since both the development and reward of teaching depends on effective evaluation. Each report has something to say, often rather pointed, about various means of evaluation currently being used. Several interesting ideas and suggestions emerged that point toward more effective strategies.
Range of Concerns
Some clear areas of common concern and hope appear in the reports. Everyone had only good things to say about the Teaching Resource Center which, it is clear, is the best thing to happen to teaching at the University within memory. Several units also praised the utility of their teaching committees and other units announced their desire to establish one. Such a committee, faculty believe, would guarantee more sustained and focused attention on teaching. Several units had either written or planned to write a faculty handbook to provide a common basis for policies and to help junior faculty become acclimated.
Ten of the eighteen reports explicitly singled out their evaluation forms as objects of reform, with a number of units putting the improvement of the form at the top of their list of things they hoped to accomplish. The current forms are judged too general to be of much use, too distorted by being voluntary, and too arbitrary. The use of numbers gives a false sense of precision, some reports complained, and the forms cannot measure much of what goes on in a classroom nor weigh various facets of teaching in a consistent way. One conversation scoffed at the very idea of using a single number "to represent such a multifaceted enterprise as teaching."
Despite the criticisms of the evaluation forms, however, no one suggested that evaluation be dispensed with. Rather, the conversations tended to turn around improving existing practices and inventing new ways to evaluate teaching. A number of imaginative solutions appeared in the reports.
Several units emphasized the importance of evaluating entire programs or majors, not just individual classes. Toward this purpose, some suggested "exit interviews": conversations with majors in their last term that ask them to reflect on their overall experience in the unit. Such interviews would have a number of advantages over the conventional end-of-term forms in each class. They are comparative, integrated, and reflective. They do not risk retribution for offering strong criticisms. Interviewers can clarify points, pushing deeper on particular issues. One department suggested that its majors club could have an honest and wide-ranging discussion of teaching in the department, with one faculty member present to convey confidential advice to his or her colleagues.
Another, complementary, alternative to the conventional form was the mid-course evaluation. Rather than waiting until the end of the term, these reports suggested, professors and teaching assistants could benefit from being told during the course itself what they need to change. Such evaluations would likely be qualitative rather than quantitative, though still anonymous. Some units in the Curry School suggested student self-evaluation as a good way to learn what was working and what was not; by asking students to distill onto one note card what they learned in any given day of class, both the student and the teacher would discover how effective the class had been.
As one report put it, teachers need more feedback and less evaluation. Evaluation for improving teaching should be based on different kinds of forms and criteria than are those used to judge merit increases. By divorcing evaluation from reward and punishment, more of the emphasis could be placed on improving teaching. Professors, especially junior professors, would be willing to take more risks if they knew their efforts would not be punished if they received low scores the first time through. A number of units called for a more collegial approach to teaching, using team teaching, peer review, and mentoring more extensively. Here, too, the emphasis would be on helping one another become better teachers, not on passing judgment.
Several units called for a uniform evaluation sheet--or at least that was uniform across units in at least some respects. Without that common basis of comparison, they argued, units had little idea of how they compared with other units, whether experiments paid off, and how various styles of teaching were received.
Some conversations urged technical improvements in evaluation. One unit suggested that students submit electronic evaluations rather than merely jotting down a few impressions at the end of the last day of class; such evaluations might even be required before a student's grade would be released. Other conversations argued that reports should be more focused, with different forms for various kinds and sizes of classes. One unit publishes their teaching reports, pointing out that "usually, the students pull no punches."
Some ideas of evaluation won little support. Teaching portfolios were generally met with skepticism, though other reports did suggest that professors should submit syllabi with their evaluations. Peer review also bred suspicion, since many professors could not imagine how visitors passing judgment would not distort the teaching--and collegial--relationship. One unit suggested that video taping might avoid some of the problems of in-class visitation.
- Innovations in teaching evaluation should be sought and carefully devised to reflect the diversity of the teaching enterprise, even as they offer some areas of uniformity and points of comparison.
- Most evaluations should be used primarily for improving teaching, with judgments of promotion, tenure, and raises based on separate and specific means of evaluation.
- Evaluations should be more sophisticated and supple than most currently are, and might profitably take the form of interviews or electronic interaction.
- Teaching evaluation should be a part of an integrated view of a unit's teaching, focusing on the relationship of courses and professors to one another rather than taking each course alone.
Range of Concerns
If there is a shared goal, it seems to be inclusiveness. Implicit in many of the conversations (and explicit in a few) was the presumption that programs for improving teaching should reach faculty at all levels, though they should pay particular attention to the needs of new and junior faculty. And if there is a common concern, it seems to be intrusiveness. The most common expression of this concern, which affects junior faculty most directly, was that development must be kept separate from evaluation. But it also surfaced in discussions of whether development programs should be voluntary or mandatory, or informal or formal. Many units seem to think that formal programs work well or are worth trying, as long as they are voluntary.
Current practices, though quite varied, can be usefully grouped in several categories. All of these categories involve what one might call procedural approaches to the problem; that is, there was little substantive discussion of what actually constitutes good teaching. The first group of practices might be termed improving information about available resources, programs, and standards. For example, many units either noted their use of the Teaching Resource Center or stated the desire to make greater use of it. The other most common suggestion in this area involved making faculty aware of, and more comfortable with, new technologies that could enhance teaching. Several units noted the existence of, or desire for, some kind of handbook for faculty within the unit to make them aware of resources, programs, and standards. Other suggestions for sharing existing information included the use of syllabus pools and the Internet.
A second category of practices is the use of formal teaching development programs. Many units have, and some advocate forming, a committee dedicated to creating, implementing, and evaluating teaching development programs. Teaching development programs may have a variety of features, but these can be usefully grouped into general development and specific development practices.
General development practices are those that are not geared to a particular teacher, but are offered to a group of faculty. For example, several units have new teacher orientation programs. Others have or advocate teaching seminars or workshops, which the entire faculty may attend. The suggestions for the content of these programs included teaching methods, classroom vignettes, and using new technology. The programs may be run by the units themselves, the TRC, or outside experts.
Specific development practices are those that are geared to improving teaching, several practices and proposals were discussed. These included reduced teaching loads or greater course choice for junior faculty, smaller class sizes, courses tied more closely to research interests, multi-sectioned courses (in which collaboration would be fostered), and pictures of students made available on computer.
- Each unit should have in place a committee devoted in whole or in part to the development of better teaching by all faculty in the unit.
- Each unit should make efforts to improve information about available resources for improving teaching to all faculty members, including information about the use of new technologies. A faculty handbook is one way of implementing this proposal.
- Each unit should put in place a formal, but voluntary, program for the development of teaching. Such a program should have both general aspects, such as workshops or orientation programs, geared toward the unit as a whole, and specific aspects, such as mentoring, geared toward improving individual faculty performance. The latter programs should not be used for evaluative purposes.
- The University should make capital improvements a priority to facilitate good teaching.
The "incentives" category received the least amount of discussion compared with "evaluation" and "development." Although briefer, the comments on incentives were lively, diverse, and thoughtful. There was no clear consensus among the various units but rather a wide range of concerns which tended to cluster around the need for clarification of the weight given to teaching in tenure, promotion, and merit pay decisions and suggestions for creating additional incentives for teaching excellence.
Range of Concerns
Many units noted that promotion, tenure, and merit pay are the main incentives for excellence in teaching and should remain so. Several units expressed concern that teaching might not weigh as heavily as it should in promotion and tenure decisions and called for clarification on this point. A number of units noted it is not clear at present that excellence in teaching counts substantially in merit pay decisions and also requested clarification on this issue. One unit observed that merit pay over the past few years has not served as an incentive since its amounts have been minuscule. Potential increases in salary must be more substantial for this to function as an incentive. Another unit noted the difficulty of rewarding excellent teaching since it was difficult to define it and evaluate it effectively. Yet another questioned the effectiveness of linking excellence in teaching with monetary rewards since true measures of excellence are grounded in such "intangibles" as personal prestige based on peer recognition and other factors. One unit noted it was "absurd" to reward good teaching with time off from teaching. Another noted "more effort should go into improving teaching; however, there are few incentives and rewards." Another suggested a "program of summer support" for outstanding teachers. A few schools suggested the creation of all-school teaching awards to augment the state and university-wide awards already in existence." Some schools and departments have such awards in place. One school has a "teaching chair" specifically designated for an individual who has "an established reputation for teaching excellence." Several departments mentioned the "shockingly substandard and depressing" condition of numerous classrooms and instructional equipment and called for rapid response to this problem. Some regarded this not as an incentive to excellent teaching but rather as an "entitlement." The above is not a complete account of the discussion, but it encompasses most of the basic concerns of the various schools and departments reporting on the "conversations" regarding incentives.
- Clarify the weight given to excellence in teaching in promotion and tenure decisions in the various units of the University.
- Clarify the point that teaching excellence should weigh heavily in merit pay decisions. However, for this to be effective, the potential salary increases must be substantially greater than those of the past few years. Otherwise, the incentive is minuscule and meaningless.
- Upgrade as quickly as possible the substandard classrooms and instructional equipment throughout many parts of the University.
- Institute departmental and school teaching awards which will create a climate in which excellence in teaching is valued and recognized. In addition to awards to individuals, entire departments which exemplify outstanding teaching might be recognized.
As the reports on evaluating, developing, and rewarding teaching reveal, University of Virginia faculty take teaching seriously indeed and have strong feelings on the subject. We are building on a strong foundation of practice and tradition, but several problems and limitations confront us. Accordingly, we make three recommendations.
First, classrooms need to be improved. Classrooms are inadequate for many of the courses taught at U.va. Many are poorly suited for the sort of discussion-based teaching that many teachers and students find most effective. Despite recent efforts, moreover, too few rooms are properly equipped for any kind of electronic enhancement. Efforts underway to evaluate and coordinate classrooms at the University need to address this fundamental limitation on effective teaching.
Second, the place of teaching in reward and promotion should be made more explicit. While professions of teaching's importance are common and while there is much goodwill expended on behalf of good teaching, guidelines for evaluating, improving, and rewarding teaching do not exist. At each level of promotion, tenure, review, and merit pay -- starting at the most local level and extending to the Provost's office -- clear criteria need to be defined and disseminated, emphasizing the role of teaching in professional advancement at the University of Virginia.
Third, a University-wide Teaching Fund should be created to enable the many good ideas expressed in these conversations. Innovation should take place at the unit level but be encouraged by resources available to the entire University community. The remainder of this document describes the plan we suggest.
It is clear from the diversity and passion of the conversations that each unit must build upon its own traditions, goals, and experiences to maintain and improve excellence in teaching. It would be misguided to force a false uniformity on that rich diversity, to devise one form of evaluation or reward. Improvements in teaching must take place within the units where faculty are hired and promoted, where they identify professionally, and where means of teaching particular disciplines have been developed.
Each unit faces particular challenges and opportunities. Some need decent maps or other teaching materials. Others want to hold retreats or workshops devoted to teaching. Others want to hire graduate students to conduct exit interviews with students reflecting on their experiences. Others want to create web sites devoted to course evaluations, syllabi, or on-line discussions. Others want to create a departmental teaching award or provide summer support to faculty devising new kinds of courses or methods. Others want to encourage team teaching, mentoring, or peer review.
Despite this diversity and particularity, the most effective enhancements to teaching over the last several years have often looked beyond individual classrooms, teachers, and departments to create new alliances and synergies. The Teaching Resource Center is the best example of how a central effort can improve teaching in diverse units without imposing a rigid model or heavy bureaucracy.
To enable localized, specific, and concrete improvement, therefore, we recommend that the University create a Teaching Fund. That fund would designate a sum of money for which units could apply to improve teaching through innovative means suitable to that unit. Resources might take the form of outright funding for initiatives or the form of exchanging of resources -- summer support, for example, or funds that could be used for any purpose at a department's discretion -- in return for new teaching investments and initiatives. Projects built around teams of teachers or entire programs, the sort emphasized in so many reports, would be especially welcome.
The Teaching Fund would be administered by a committee of the Faculty Senate, using the competition as a way to continue the conversation on teaching initiated this year. We recommend that the effort begin immediately with pilot projects and then seek permanent funding as it evolves and proves its value, as we are certain it will.
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