How to Talk to Faculty Who Receive Low Course Evaluations
Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment of a three-part series on conversations about course ratings. Last month explored how to frame a discussion with a faculty member who receives average ratings semester after semester.
This second scenario may be the most challenging for department chairs. It’s the conversation that needs to occur with a faculty member whose end-of-course ratings are low.
To get started, you must first consider whether low ratings are clearly defined at the institution and in the department. In general, we haven’t been good at setting benchmarks. If ratings in the department are averaged, there’s going to be a cohort that are below average. Does that mean their teaching is unsatisfactory or simply not quite as good as others?
After determining the ratings are in fact cause for concern, consider how long they’ve been low and how many courses are getting low ratings. There are indications that new faculty members, faculty members teaching a course for the first time, or teachers who’ve implemented a lot of changes in a course tend to get lower ratings. In all three cases, there’s also evidence the ratings recover. Academic leaders have been known to over react to low ratings, or at least faculty have been known to tell stories to that effect.
That said, if the ratings are low, they need to be discussed. Admonishments to “Do something about your ratings.” or “Get those ratings up!” aren’t helpful. Yes, that’s what needs to happen, but that’s not where the focus should be. If the faculty member starts feeling desperate, there are any number of ways to get the ratings up, like handing out chocolates before students complete the ratings (Youmans and Jee, 2007). The focus needs to be on teaching that more effectively promotes learning—that’s how you want to get the ratings to improve.
Furthermore, the conversation should not dwell on the “need” to improve. Focusing efforts to improve on premises of remediation and deficiency does not make improvement a very positive process, especially for independent-minded faculty with decades of experience. It turns improvement into something that’s required rather than something that’s embraced as part of one’s ongoing professional growth and development. If there’s a “need” to improve, that decreases the likelihood that others will be involved in the process, especially if that necessitates revealing there are teaching problems. Better to frame the conversation around the expectation that all faculty members can and should improve. It’s an across-the-board expectation that avoids getting into who does and doesn’t need to improve.
Problems are also created when a department chair tells a faculty member to “get help” with their teaching.” Nothing communicates deficiency and inadequacy quite as effectively as telling someone they need help. Any number of centers for teaching and learning have died slow and painful deaths because they became known, rightly or wrongly, as places where poor teachers go to get help. Moreover, teaching can be improved without the admission that help is needed.
For example, if faculty are asked, “are you interested in how much and how well your students are learning?” it’s pretty hard to say no. Of course, they’re interested. From there it’s easy to launch into some of the things we know promote learning—getting students engaged, getting them connected with other students, getting them regularly reviewing content. Effective teaching strategies are what accomplish these goals, so you end up talking about changes that will improve teaching, but you’ve gotten there in a much less threatening way. It’s not about needing help or getting the ratings up; it’s about what teachers can do that effectively promotes learning.
The conversation should explore those aspects of teaching that aren’t working, but there should also be a discussion of strengths. It’s good to remember that teaching can be improved in two ways; by doing less of what isn’t working and by doing more of what is or has potential to work well. Teachers with a history of low ratings frequently don’t feel good about themselves as teachers (and maybe they shouldn’t), but when it comes to improving sometimes it’s easier to get the process going by starting with something seen as a strength that might be done more often, done in an elaborated or slightly different form, and done in different courses.
Like students who aren’t confident learners, faculty who aren’t very confident about their teaching (but who usually don’t make that admission) are helped when they have an academic leader who believes in them. And that can be an honest commitment. There are all sorts of small things that can be done to improve teaching. They involve basic knowledge and simple skills (wait time after a question). Yes, there’s artistry involved in teaching, especially exceptional teaching, but good teaching starts with basic skills and they are skills that can be acquired, especially by bright, well-educated persons.
Some faculty have been known to teach with low ratings for years. That’s not fair to students. The longer those ratings have been allowed to remain low, the harder they become to change. It’s important to intervene early and to do so with a conversation that is pointed but positive. Rating results can motivate improvement and provide useful data. Here’s an article that offers great advice on doing so. Boysen, G. A., (2016). Using student evaluations to improve teaching: Evidence-based recommendations. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2 (4), 273-284.
Reference: Youmans, R. J. and Jee, B. D. (2007). Fudging the numbers: Distributing chocolate influences student evaluations of an undergraduate course. Teaching of Psychology, 34 (4), 245-247.
Maryellen Weimer is a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Penn State Berks and the longtime the editor of The Teaching Professor.
Next month we’ll explore a scenario where a faculty member over-reacts to any small increase or decrease in rating scores.