Teachers’ evaluation – a nasty business?

By Julie Albers

Your 9 AM class starts with a US professor who just attained an impressive PhD. For the next class, you have to read a prominent paper of your own teacher. UCU teachers are often experienced and are academically highly qualified. Yet how does this relate to the quality of their teaching? And are they actively involved in improving it?

Students are and should be the focus of academic education. Still, a teacher can have a great impact on students’ academic experience by offering good quality teaching. According to ASC Student Assessor Rens Bakker, “a movement to ‘focus on the teaching’ is slowly developing.”

At our college, the quality of teaching is evaluated at four levels: by students, by UCU teachers, by College Hall and by the wider network of Utrecht University. Several methods, measures and criteria have been established.

Students’ input

An integral part of UCU’s quality control system are students themselves. The Academic Student Council (ASC) is our main representative body. Focus groups, the Teacher of the Year Election and the Learning & Teaching Day, where everyone can join the discussion about teaching, are key possibilities for students to express their opinions about teachers and courses.

“Despite the high teaching quality, it turned out that the consistent application of UCU’s Liberal Arts & Sciences philosophy and the small-scale education need some improvement,” Bakker comments on the Learning & Teaching day that took place this spring. The main aim of ASC is to “reach out to teachers who didn’t participate”.

“We want to open up the floor for teachers to discuss their teaching with colleagues and students, so there is a continuous improvement and an open flow of ideas. Our approach is still from a student’s position, but most teachers are very open and appreciate our work,” Academic Affairs Officer Isabel Braadbaart says.

These initiatives sound very promising, but how is the performance of a teacher formally measured?

Students often question how much influence do our extensive course evaluations have? “The initiative to take students’ opinions into account is very positive. But you don’t really know if anything happens with the results,” first-year student Pomme Simons says.

“Course evaluations are taken incredibly seriously,” Bakker assures. “If there is a problem, the Head of the Department will immediately take it up.”

The course evaluation is also important to see the influence of student input over time. “Since no student ever follows the same course twice, the results of feedback remain rather invisible,” says Bakker. “We try to look especially at the difference between two semesters.”

Director of Education Fried Keesen further elaborates on this system. The core of his work is overseeing the quality of education. Twice a year, results of an institutional quality cycle are presented. “If the overall student judgment of a course is a 3.0 or less, an institutionalized meeting with the teacher will take place.” This generally happens to four or five different courses each semester.

What measures are taken to improve such a situation? Depending on the problem, extra guidance, tips and tricks from colleagues or someone sitting in the class are options. “If the first few weeks of contact between a teacher and his students are bad, it often won’t improve anymore,” Keesen says.

The structure of the course itself may also be problematic. Keesen mentions issues with the two-teacher system of ASAP and the lack of relevance of Methods & Statistics for law students. “Based on the evaluations, the courses are being redesigned into tailor-made packages of skills courses.”

How else are teachers evaluated?

In addition to our course evaluations, surveys are being distributed to exchange students, alumni, graduate schools and teachers themselves. Focus groups and meetings with ASC supplement College Hall with concrete results. Both, the College Council and the UCU Board then decide if any measures need to be taken.

Students’ evaluations alone are not enough, says Psychology Fellow Christel Lutz, who is actively involved in teachers’ evaluation. Together with Rosemary Orr, she investigates more formal ways to evaluate teachers. On a voluntary basis, teachers participate in peer consultation – giving informal advice – and peer coaching. “We match teachers to one another,” Lutz says. “They advice each other inside and outside the classroom.”

Teachers are generally enthusiastic about these initiatives. “Don’t forget that this is very time-consuming and that teachers sometimes need to prioritize,” Lutz emphasizes. “But when they participate, it’s fun and their confidence grows, which helps them improving their teaching skills.”

Lutz’s biggest project as a teaching fellow is integrating strategic research into UCU. “The quality of teaching is not just about knowledge. We strive to bring in the big names, so students can meet top researchers and perhaps envision a future working with them.” She is also busy setting up the Teaching Academy, an interactive space across the UU where teachers can find advice, inspiring initiatives and teaching-related events.

“Evaluation is a nasty word,” Lutz says. “Teachers are like students: you know how to improve, but it’s not always your priority. Clear pathways and easy steps will facilitate this.”

It seems that an extensive array of measures and criteria has been set up to evaluate our teachers. Let’s hope these plans will really persist. Who knows, perhaps the new first-years will be welcomed by a top researcher from Cambridge in their first ASAP class.

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