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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teaching evaluations by faculty colleagues

At my institution, the evaluation process for each retention, tenure, and promotion decision includes class visits by other faculty members to observe the candidate's teaching.  I imagine this is standard procedure everywhere.  I have experienced this once already (my retention review) and before long will experience it again (tenure review).  This is an important and valuable part of the review process.  It would be inappropriate to leave evaluation of teaching solely up to students.  (Equally, I think it would be wrong to leave student evaluations out.  A complete picture incorporates both.  And it might incorporate other information as well.  I wonder whether any schools attempt to use outcome measures of student success linked to individual instructors?) 

The in-class observations are a bit awkward, probably unavoidably so.  For one thing, there is the consciousness of being evaluated in person, which most people don't especially enjoy, though of course it goes with the territory.  It also makes me wonder what the students think, if they notice there are observers.  ("Why are they keeping an eye on this guy?")  I suppose I could just tell the students to expect visitors and why.  But apart from this inherent mild awkwardness, the visits themselves have been fine, in my (limited) experience.  In conversations with people at various law schools, I have heard some stories about visits that don't go so well - as when the visitor starts stumping the instructor with questions.  One suspects some of these are apocryphal.  But if you have a story that will keep junior profs up at night from now until tenure, feel free to share.

Posted by Aaron Bruhl on February 14, 2010 at 07:45 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Keith wrote: "In part that's an indication of where teaching falls in the evaluation process -- promotion decisions primarily turn on research."

But even such schools may want to give lip-service to a teaching requirement for advancement, and may retain peer observation as a means to that end.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Feb 16, 2010 1:39:54 PM

If you're fortunate enough to be teaching in a new classroom, you might be able to just have your classes unobtrusively taped. We did that throughout the Fall for dozens of classes, on account of H1N1 fears - students were encouraged to just stay home and watch video of class. And of course if colleagues wanted to observe you in class, they could just load up a video.

Posted by: Joseph Blocher | Feb 16, 2010 10:39:33 AM

There is the famous Erwin Griswold teaching evaluation story.

. . . which is ?

Posted by: don anon | Feb 15, 2010 4:01:41 PM

I find that students are more likely to behave and participate when there are visitors. Especially 1Ls. Especially if the visitor is one of their other professors. They seem to perceive that they are being watched and judged instead of it being the professor under scrutiny.

Posted by: anon young prof | Feb 15, 2010 3:29:10 PM

No story, but it seems to me that the fact of being observed (or at least it being evident that one is being observed) changes the observation. Call it a Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I've found that when an observer is in the class the rare student is more likely to act up and behave uncharacteristically rude or demanding.

Posted by: Anon | Feb 15, 2010 3:05:44 PM

My sense is that in-class visits by other faculty are a common part of the promotion process at liberal arts colleges and at law schools, but are quite rare otherwise. Maybe I'm wrong and they are more common than that at, say, large four-year colleges? In part that's an indication of where teaching falls in the evaluation process -- promotion decisions primarily turn on research. Given that, there's an assumption that there are adequate ways through other means to figure out whether someone is screwing up in the classroom without routine in-class visits (police patrols v. fire alarms and all that).

Posted by: keith | Feb 15, 2010 12:17:12 PM

I am inclined to think that such visitor evaluations may provide inaccurate estimates of what the typical class looks like. Ideally, you might have unobtrusive random surveillance, however I think that type of situation might drive faculty to distraction and actually diminish teaching quality long term. On the other hand, planned visits by fellow faculty mean just that - the instructor knows that you are coming - it also has the "luck of the draw" aspect of which evaluator you get and how they act or perceive your teaching. Still, student evaluations likely need some counterbalance, so I am sympathetic to the need for these procedures. I've never actually had to endure one of these visits, but I have had three flyout interviews that required me to teach a class while members of the faculty watched - awkward.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Feb 15, 2010 9:13:25 AM

I've never had a visitor say a thing. If one were to try to "stump me with questions," I think I'd ask if he or she had done the reading. But then again, I teach subjects almost nobody else in my school teaches.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Feb 15, 2010 2:35:23 AM

There is the famous Erwin Griswold teaching evaluation story.

Posted by: Anon. | Feb 15, 2010 12:54:11 AM

Your students will understand why your class is being observed. They've been through it many times as undergraduates. If it increases your comfort level, acknowledge the visitor's presence.

And if the visitor starts stumping you with questions, I think the proper response is some combination of how you react to a questioner at a conference, and how you react to a "regular" student behaving similarly.

Good luck!!

Posted by: RES | Feb 14, 2010 8:17:01 PM

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