COVID-19 and Teaching Evaluations

The abrupt transition to online teaching, the hasty reorganization or course schedules in light of cancelled classes, and the move to pass/fail grading options characteristic of many schools’ responses to the pandemic will likely affect students opinions of the courses they’re taking and the instructors teaching them.

Under normal circumstances, during this month and next, universities would typically be distributing and collecting student evaluations of teaching (SETs)—despite frequent complaints about their usefulness and accuracy (for example). Are they still planning on doing so during the pandemic? Should they? If they are, what should be done with the results?

Justin Remhof, assistant professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University, wrote in asking about SETs this term and makes an interesting suggestion:

One worry is that some teachers might receive awful evaluations due to the fact that they’ve never taught online before. This could significantly lower their average report scores, which could affect their chances of landing positions in the future. Adjuncts, lecturers, visiting assistant professors, and those aiming to secure positions at teaching schools might be most affected—and I’m not sure a cover letter attempting to explain away low scores will do the trick. Our university has issued “pass/fail” grades for students this semester. Might there be some similar remedy for teaching evaluations? Maybe universities can let teachers “opt out” of having scores negatively affect their overall performance. I was wondering what, if anything, readers have heard from their institutions.

Giving zero weight to this term’s SET numbers in the institutional evaluation of instructors seems reasonable. The Pass/Fail option for SETs might work—though I worry about students using every available outlet, including SETS, to express to their schools their disappointment in their whole college experience this semester, and so issuing undeserved Fails.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) included on their “Principles for Higher Education Response to COVID-19” the following:

Faculty members, particularly adjunct/ contingent faculty and those on the tenure track who are not yet tenured, should be protected against the punitive use of negative teaching evaluations during the period of the disruption (e.g., a quick transition to an online format may create a lack of depth; a faculty member may not have been adequately trained to teach online, etc.).

Inside Higher Ed covered this issue last week, linking to a post by Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi and author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. He thinks the best option is to cancel the SETs this term:

This, to me, is the most equitable model. This is the option with the least possibility for misuse (because there will not be anything to misuse) and it is the only one that truly levels the playing field.

I know what you’re thinking: but, Josh, don’t we want student feedback on their experience this semester? Yes, we do, but we want different kinds of feedback. Just like with any semester, those faculty who want individualized, formative feedback from their students should be encouraged to create a short survey in Survey Monkey, Qualtrics, etc. to ask their students these questions, or they could work with their friendly neighborhood teaching center to develop such a survey. This is right in our (meaning those who work in teaching centers) wheelhouse!

Secondly, we also want student feedback on the transition process—glitches in the technology, workload across the board, etc.–independent of what is happening with individual courses. We need to develop mechanisms to get this feedback sent directly to IT and the Provost’s Office in ways that are anonymized and that have no impact on a person’s career.

In short, this is a tumultuous semester for everyone. Faculty should not have their careers negatively affected by this disruptive transition, just as students should not have to worry about the effect of all of this on their grades. SETs have an impact on faculty of every stripe—adjuncts, full-time NTT faculty, and tenure-stream faculty. We need to look carefully at how we can address their use in the weeks and months ahead.

Let us know what your university is doing. And if you have an idea of what they should be doing, share it. Thanks.

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