- Evaluation of Teaching
The Department of Mathematics administers
a student course evaluation in every section of every course every
semester. The questionnaire consists of 22 multiple response
questions (such as "rate the instructor" and "grade you expect to
receive in this course") with space on the reverse side for free-form
written commentary on the text, the course, and the instructor. The
multiple response data are scored by computer and a brief statistical
report is produced for each section. These reports and all the
written comments are reviewed by the chair and the chair's advisory
committee every year. Using all the information at its disposal, the
advisory committee then gives each faculty member a teaching
"rating." This rating and analogous ratings for research and service
form the basis for annual salary recommendations report to the Dean.
The department does not currently use peer review, portfolios, or
other methods. In cases of promotion, however, letters from former
students have been solicited for inclusion in the promotion review.
Members of the department generally feel that
our course evaluation questionnaire has been adequate, but is in need
of some revision. The results typically show a department average
teaching grade of around B+. Some faculty complain that our
statistical report compares individual scores to this high mean so
that we all seem to be near average, masking the fact we are
generally experiencing an overall positive rating. The
questionnaires have also been criticized for asking students to rate
such things as the instructor's "scholarly grasp" of the material,
which they are not competent to do, and for not examining
cross-correlations among responses, e.g., is there correlation
between "expected grade" and "rate the instructor"?
Many members of the department feel that the written commentary
offers the most important feedback. This must be read very
judiciously, however, as many students tend to evaluate teaching from
an egocentric viewpoint. For example, comments on an instructor's
style of dress do not merit any attention. Likewise, comments that an
instructor was "never available outside of class, " when balanced by
substantial evidence to the contrary, speak more to differences in
initiative on the part of students than to any quality of the
instructor. On the other hand, a consistent pattern in student
commentary can reveal significant strengths or deficiencies of which
an instructor might otherwise be unaware.
Some of our faculty who have served on University committees (such
as P&T) note that our evaluation questionnaire compares favorably
with those of other departments. They also point out that they and
others have brought back to our department a fairly good
understanding of evaluation practices across departments.
On the question of peer evaluation, there is great skepticism as
to the wisdom of initiating such a thing. Many think it would be
divisive and inimical to collegiality and morale, two of the pillars
which support the teaching enterprise. Moreover, there is a broad
consensus that in the normal course of things we get to know each
other well enough to know how we compare as teachers. After all, we
routinely observe our colleagues lecturing in colloquia and seminars;
and we interact with students on so many levels (chair, advisor,
etc.) that we get plenty of feedback on our colleagues' reputations,
In general, our faculty is dubious about the possibility of
achieving accurate, objective teaching evaluations. Student
evaluations are subject to many sources of bias which would be
difficult to account for. In mathematics, for example, some courses
required by other schools or departments are thought of as
unnecessary obstacles and evaluations in those courses suffer
accordingly. There is also self-selection bias: students who like
mathematics enroll in more advanced courses with smaller class sizes,
and they tend to schedule their mathematics courses during prime
times. This affects evaluation outcomes. How, then, does one compare
Evaluation by peers or administrators is also subject to serious
flaws. First, who is truly competent to evaluate teaching? Second, is
it even possible to arrive at a definition of "good teaching." This
is a very thorny question. Most of us feel that we "know good
teaching when we see it," but this is hardly an objective criterion.
We must recognize that arriving at a good teaching style can depend
heavily on individual characteristics. What is an incredibly
successful technique for one instructor may be completely
inappropriate for another, and yet both may be superbly effective
Finally, is there a danger that too much emphasis on evaluation of
teaching may distort our behavior in the classroom, pushing us away
from idiosyncratic excellence and toward a uniform mediocrity? Could
stronger emphasis on pedagogy diminish the importance of scholarly
excellence and lead to a de-professionalization of the professorate
akin to what has occurred in secondary education?
- Improvement of Teaching
The department faculty discuss teaching
issues regularly, if informally, in mail-room conversation, at lunch,
in late afternoon chats, etc. This has gone on for as long as any of
us have been here. Overall, the department does a very good job of
teaching. Each member of the department makes a serious effort to
teach well and to improve teaching, although we may not all have the
same conception of what this entails. This kind of informal, but
quite focused, concern for teaching has lead to many experiments and
innovations in our curriculum. Over the years we have introduced new
courses and deleted obsolete ones, tried out "group methods,"
"projects," and the use of technology, usually be keeping our ears to
the ground and sharing interests and information.
More formally, we have recently instituted a system of "options"
(tracks) for our majors, to give them better guidance on what path to
follow through the curriculum. Detailed information is now provided
in a department guidebook.
Another formal structure is our summer training program required
for all TA's. Thanks to a Department of Education grant, those who
are to teach in the upcoming year are given the equivalent of a
two-semester course in both the subject matter of the classes they
will teach and in suggested teaching methods. The TAs are further
helped by the fact that in large multi-section courses there is
always a faculty "coordinator" who is responsible for creating a
uniform curriculum, setting the exams, and generally overseeing the
conduct of the course.
Another formal practice of note is the Math Tutoring Center which
offers open tutorial services to all students in our non-major
courses. The center is staffed by graduate students and a few
advanced undergraduates and runs from 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday
through Thursday every week during the semester.
Junior faculty are "mentored" informally. This has worked well
over the years and, since there has been so little hiring recently,
there does not seem to be a need at present for anything more formal.
Members of the department feel that, in
general, we do a good job of working to improve our program as a
department and to improve our teaching as individuals. Much work is
quietly done to introduce new topics, employ new technology, etc.
Many express the thought that teaching mathematics is like teaching a
language: it requires skill development in symbolic manipulation and
close reading. For this reason, many in the department feel that an
important component of the improvement of teaching is to keep class
sizes as low as is reasonably possible.
As described above, the department
advisory committee does a fairly through review of teaching
evaluations and incorporates the results in its annual salary
recommendations. In addition, in promotion and tenure cases, teaching
evaluations spanning several years are reviewed and in some cases
letters from former students are solicited.
This topic was perhaps most troubling to
department members. Much of the murkiness here derives from this
question: if it is unclear how to define or measure "good teaching,"
then how can you create a rational reward system?
Another thought expressed was that in recent years so little
"reward has been available that neither teaching nor research have
garnered much, if any, and without this the question is moot. A last
thought is that it is absurd to reward good teaching with time off
from teaching. Apparently, E.J. McShane once suggested that good
teaching should rather be rewarded with a year or semester free of