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Committee seeking TCE reforms

Justin Tardiff | Thursday, December 1, 2005

It’s that time of year again.

Students are stressed, finals are looming and professors are handing out a critical – and sometimes controversial – assessment of their teaching abilities, the Teacher/Course Evaluations.

The bubble sheets some students flurry through on their way out of class are more than a tool for a professor’s improvement. They are sorted and stored in a massive University-wide database, then thoroughly reviewed when a faculty member is considered for tenure or promotion at the University, said Vice President and Associate Provost Dennis Jacobs.

“At the point of high-stakes promotion, we look very carefully at the quality of teaching,” Jacobs said. “If we say that we value student learning and we never look at it, then there’s an emptiness in that.”

Tenure is a lifetime contract the University makes with a professor – promising to employ them for the rest of the faculty member’s life, barring any extreme infractions.

Jacobs is currently heading a committee called the Advisory Committee to the Provost on the Evaluation of Teaching that has been working for over a year to develop a more comprehensive way to qualitatively measure a professor’s effectiveness in the classroom.

“The TCE can’t possibly capture all that’s involved in effective teaching in every form that it takes,” Jacobs said. “Our committee wants to give mechanisms for faculty to get reliable information back from students that speaks to the many dimensions of teaching. We’re reviewing how to give annual feedback to the faculty as well as looking at the system that’s in place for high stake decisions of tenure.”

Jacobs’ committee is expected to deliver a report outlining its suggestions for a new plan of teaching evaluation soon. It will be sent to the Faculty Senate, the Provost’s Advisory Committee and the Academic Council for review.

“In the end, [our work] is advisory to the provost [Thomas Burish],” Jacobs said. “The proposal, along with reaction of the committees, will go to the provost, who then can adopt some of those recommendations or not, depending on his opinion.”

The problem with the TCE right now, some faculty members say, is that its questions fail to measure the quality of teaching.

“I have never heard a faculty member express confidence in the TCEs,” philosophy professor Kenneth Sayre said. “There seems to be a universal perception that they don’t measure what should be measured and that they’re arbitrary and yield results that are very hard to factor into any rational tenure decision.”

The desire for a better evaluation of teaching is widespread among faculty, Sayre said. He believes that without a well-defined method for evaluating teaching, departmental committees reviewing candidates for tenure can arbitrarily choose how much weight to put on TCE scores.

“It’s sort of a wild card. You have no idea how it’s going to be played,” he said. “If the [departmental tenure evaluation] committee wants to get rid of you, they can put [the TCEs] in a bad light. If they want to keep you, then they’ll interpret them in a favorable way.”

In fact, fear of poor TCE scores sometimes detracts from teaching quality, said a professor who wished to remain anonymous. He described knowing young professors who “water down” their courses so they don’t “get nailed” on course evaluations. The result is a teaching system controlled by students who want easier courses, he said.

But sophomore Marissa Najera insists that the grade she expects in a class does not influence the rating she gives the professor on the TCE.

“I give my professors the feedback they deserve,” Najera said. “Even if I’m doing well and the professor isn’t great, I will be honest. If I’m going to get a bad grade, [I] maybe won’t score as good, but I try to be fair.”

Sayre called the TCEs a “wild card” in a tenure candidate’s application – causing some tenure-track profs to hand out far too many As and A-s, he said.

“My impression is that people who have had a long experience with TCEs, [like] senior professors, consider them to be ridiculous. And [young professors] who are just getting used to the idea are frightened by them.”

TCEs have been around since the 1980s, said Vice President and Associate Provost Jean Ann Linney, who sits on the Provost Advisory Committee that votes on each tenure candidate. Teaching, along with research and service, are the three components examined when a candidate is being considered for tenure, she said, with heavy emphasis placed on teaching and research.

But unlike research, teaching is very difficult to measure quantitatively.

“If students are intended to be better writers or better thinkers or better reasoners, then one appropriate way to evaluate effectiveness is to determine how well they have progressed toward that,” Jacobs said. “And that doesn’t come through as well on TCEs.”

An assistant professor usually goes up for tenure during his or her fifth year at Notre Dame. Each candidate creates a packet of information outlining and documenting their achievements in teaching, research and service. The packet is evaluated many times – beginning with a committee inside the candidate’s department and ending with final approval by the University president.

Since a professor’s career is on the line when being considered for tenure, Jacobs’ committee is working to ensure that teaching is fairly and accurately evaluated when a candidate is considered.

“We want to provide a template that’s perhaps a little more helpful and structured about how faculty in departments charged with evaluating teaching can go about it in a more systematic way,” he said.

The problem right now, Jacobs said, is that the way that committee looks at teaching and TCEs varies widely from department to department and college to college. Jacobs and his committee are working to reduce the variance and ensure the process is fair.

“Across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to find a university that does not have some sort of review committee or task force to look at reassessment and evaluation of teaching,” Linney said. “The fact that Notre Dame is thinking about this puts us in line with most universities in the country.”