Evaluating Your Own Teaching

Center for the Integration of Teaching and Learning (CIRTL), article was adapted with permission from L. Dee Fink, from Peter Seldin (Ed.) Improving College Teaching, © Anker Publishing Company, Inc. How to Evaluate Your Own Teaching: Evaluating Your Own Teaching via CIRTL. Retrieved from http://www.cirtl.net/node/2645

“A Definition of “Evaluation”

Doing good evaluation is like doing good research. In both cases, you are trying to answer some questions about an important topic. The key to doing both activities well is (a) identifying the right questions to ask and (b) figuring out how to answer them.

Five Sources of Information

There are five basic sources of information that teachers can use to evaluate their teaching. All evaluation efforts use one or more of these basic sources. Each of these five sources has a unique value as well as an inherent limitation.

1. Self-monitoring

Self-monitoring is what people do semi-automatically and semi-consciously whenever they teach.

  • Special Value

The first value of self-monitoring is that it is immediate and constant. You do not have to wait a week or a day or even an hour to get the results. Hence, adjustments are possible right away.

The second value is that this information is automatically created in terms that are meaningful to the teacher because it is the teacher who creates the information.

  • Frequency

This does and should happen all the time. We may only take a mental pause every few minutes to size up the situation. But by comparison with the other sources of information discussed below, this takes place continuously.

  • Limitation

The very strength of this source is also its weakness. Because this information is created by us for us, it is also subject to our own biases and misinterpretations. This means that, at times, we are going to misread the responses of students to our teaching.

2. Audiotape and Videotape Recordings

Modern technology has given us relatively inexpensive and easy access to audio and video recordings of what we do as teachers.

  • Special Value

The value of audio and video is that it gives us totally objective information. It tells us exactly what we really said, what we really did, not what we thought we said or did. How much time did I spend on this topic? How many times did I ask questions? How often did I move around? These are questions the audio and video recordings can answer with complete accuracy and objectivity.

  • Frequency

Video recordings are probably useful once every year or two. As we grow older, we change, and we need to know what we look like to others.

  • Limitation

What could be more valuable than the objective truth of audio and video recordings? Unfortunately the unavoidable problem with this information is that it is true but meaningless – by itself. The recordings can tell me if I spoke at the rate of 20 words or 60 words per minute, but they can’t tell me whether that was too slow or too fast for the students.

3. Information from Students

As the intended beneficiaries of all teaching, students are in a unique position to help their teachers in the evaluation process.

  • Special Value

If we want to know whether students find our explanations of a topic clear, or whether students find our teaching exciting or dull, who else could possibly answer these kinds of questions better than the students themselves? Of the five sources of information described here, students are the best source for understanding the immediate effects of our teaching (i.e., the process of teaching and learning.)

This information can be obtained in two distinct ways: questionnaires and interviews. Each method has its own relative value.

3A. Questionnaires

The most common method of obtaining student reactions to our teaching is to use a questionnaire.

  • Special Value

The special value of questionnaires, compared to interviews, is that they obtain responses from the whole class and they allow for an anonymous (and therefore probably more candid) response.

  • Frequency

Questionnaires should be given at three different times: the beginning, middle and end of a course. Use questionnaires at the beginning of a course to get information about the students, e.g., prior course work or experience with the subject, preferred modes of teaching and learning, and special problems a student might have (such as dyslexia). Use mid-term questionnaires to get an early warning of any existing problems so that changes can be made in time to benefit the students. The advantage of end-of-term questionnaires is that all the learning activities have been completed. Consequently, students can respond meaningfully to questions about the overall effectiveness of the course.

  • Limitation 

The limitation of questionnaires is that they can only ask a question once, i.e., that cannot probe for further clarification, and they can only ask questions that the writer anticipates as possibly important.

3B. Interviews

The other well-established way of finding out about students’ reactions is to talk to the class. Either the teacher (if sufficient trust and rapport exist) or an outside person (if more anonymity and objectivity are desired) can talk with students for 15-30 minutes about the course and the teacher.

  • Special Value

The special value of interviews is that students often identify unanticipated strengths and weaknesses, and the interviewer can probe and follow-up on topics that need clarification.

  • Frequency

I would probably only use a formal interview once or at most twice during a term. Of course, a teacher can informally visit with students about the course many times, and directly or indirectly obtain a sense of their reaction to the course.

  • Limitation

Although students know better than anyone else what their own reactions are, they can also be biased and limited in their own perspectives. They occasionally have negative feelings, often unconsciously, about women, people who are ethnically different from themselves, and international teachers. Perhaps more significantly, students usually do not have a full understanding of how a course might be taught, either in terms of pedagogy or content.

4. Students’ Test Results

Teachers almost always give students some form of graded exercise, whether it is an in-class test or an out-of-class project. Usually, though, the intent of the test is to assess the quality of student learning. We can also use this information to assess the quality of our teaching.

  • Special Value

The reason for teaching is to help someone else learn. Assuming we can devise a test or graded exercise that effectively measures whether or not students are learning what we want them to learn, the test results basically tell us whether or not we are succeeding in our whole teaching effort.

  • Frequency

How often should we give tests? Many teachers follow the tradition of two midterms and a final. In my view, this is inadequate feedback, both for the students and for the teacher. Weekly or even daily feedback is much more effective in letting students and the teacher know whether they are learning what they need to learn as the course goes along. If the teacher’s goal is to help the students learn, this is important information for both parties. And remember, not all tests need to be graded and recorded.

  • Limitation

It might be hard to imagine that this information has a limitation. After all, this is what it’s all about, right? Did they learn it or not?

The problem with this information is its lack of a causal connection.

5. Outside Observer

In addition to the perspectives of the two parties directly involved in a course, the teacher and the students, a third party’s observations can provide valuable information. Such an observer can bring both an outsider’s perspective and professional expertise to the task. A variety of kinds of observers exist: a peer colleague, a senior colleague, or an instructional specialist. It can also be highly valuable for new instructors to connect with a teaching mentor.

  • Special Value

Part of the value of an outside observer is that they do not have a personal stake in the particular course; hence, they are free to reach positive and negative conclusions without any cost to themselves. Also, as a professional, they can bring an expertise either in content and/or in pedagogy that is likely to supplement that of both the teacher and the students.

  • Frequency

Beginning TAs and beginning faculty members should consider inviting one or more outside observers to their classes at least once a semester for two or three years. They need to get as many new perspectives on teaching as soon as possible. After that, more experienced teachers would probably benefit from such feedback at least once every year or two. We change as teachers; as we do, we need all the feedback and fresh ideas we can find.

  • Limitation

Again, the strength of being an outsider is also its weakness. Outside observers can usually only visit one or two class sessions and therefore do not know what happens in the rest of the course.

Apart from this general problem, each kind of observer has its own limitation. The peer colleague may also have limited experience and perspectives; the senior colleague may be someone who makes departmental decisions about annual evaluations and tenure; and the instructional consultant may have limited knowledge of the subject matter.”

Evaluating Your Own Teaching

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