Faculty members learned a lot about their disciplines in graduate school. But you know most of them have not had formal training in how to teach.
And if their job expectations include research and service, they might not start their faculty careers with a clear idea of how to balance competing priorities.
Members of Dean & Provost’s Advisory Board discussed how and how often their institutions assess faculty performance. They also shared ways they use the evaluation results to encourage improvement.
Academic administrators from Palm Beach State College in Florida, Hofstra University in New York, Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, and the University of Florida participated in the discussion.
Two functions drove many of their institutions’ practices for faculty evaluations: expectations of accrediting agencies and union contracts.
“Regional accrediting bodies are so focused on learning outcomes and how they impact teaching,” said Jill Murray, vice president for academic affairs at Lackawanna.
And union contracts determined the frequency and other details about evaluations at the institutions where faculty were unionized.
Frequent evaluations provide needed feedback
New faculty members are evaluated at least once a year at all four institutions. That helps them develop skills and lets them know whether they are on track to earn tenure.
“Everyone has bought into the culture of no surprises,” said Herman Berliner, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Hofstra.
Berliner remembers some occasions when faculty members came up for tenure and concerns were raised about them. He read back through their evaluations and saw no indication that there were problems. With an insistence that administrators take the annual evaluations seriously, that no longer happens at his institution, he said.
The frequency of evaluations decreases at some institutions after faculty members earn tenure. For example, at Palm Beach State, tenured faculty members are observed once a year, but an evaluation is completed only every three years. The evaluations used to be annual, but administrators realized they could be more thorough and give better feedback evaluating the faculty members less frequently, said Roger Ramsammy, dean of academic affairs.
Part-time adjunct instructors at Palm Beach State are evaluated each of the first two semesters they teach. If their evaluation shows they met the criteria at the end of those semesters, they may continue teaching.
At Lackawanna, administrators check on certain aspects of online courses three times during the semester, Murray said.
Observation of teaching is an important component of the evaluations. Student evaluations of the faculty members are also used, but they need to be looked at in the aggregate, said Lucinda Lavelli, dean of UF’s College of Fine Arts. UF officials consider them over a three-year period. Sometimes a particular course or semester looks a lot different than the faculty members’ other results, Lavelli added.
Technology makes process more transparent
At Palm Beach State, faculty evaluations are collected online, Ramsammy said. The executive staff can see them for three years. That makes comparing them and spotting trends easy, he said.
UF has also implemented an online evaluation system. The faculty members like the convenience, Lavelli said.
Feedback spurs improvement
Evaluations help administrators prepare faculty members for the tenure process and guide them to training that can improve their teaching.
At UF, the tenure review process considers teaching, research and service, but service is less important than the other areas, Lavelli said. Faculty members are evaluated in all three areas to determine whether they are on track to earn tenure, and administrators let them know if they need to refocus how they spend their time.
Usually, a faculty member’s effectiveness as a teacher is an indicator of how strong he is in research and service as well, Lavelli said. Good teachers produce solid research. And poor teaching is usually accompanied by poor research productivity and inadequate service, she added.
When faculty members need help or want to learn new skills, the institutions provide support.
Hofstra’s Center for Teaching and Scholarly Excellence helps faculty members develop their teaching skills, Berliner said. They can even ask to have their classes recorded on video. A staff member from the center will go over the video with them to discuss what’s working and what’s not.
Although the center is under the Provost’s Office, staff members don’t report which faculty members use it or what problems they are having. Knowing that their problems won’t be discussed with upper-level administrators, faculty members feel more free to seek help, Berliner said.
Lackawanna is creating a similar center, Murray said. Faculty members will be able to apply for intensive support. Those who are chosen will have a reduced courseload for the fall and spring semester. They will spend the time learning new strategies for teaching to implement in the courses they are teaching.
Faculty members will receive a certification once they complete the program.
At Palm Beach State, Ramsammy teaches mini workshops on topics related to teaching online. He holds them once or twice a month. Topics have included how to use green-screen technology and how to use software that handles assessment questions.
Ramsammy gets topic ideas from faculty evaluations because the reports reveal what’s missing in the faculty members’ knowledge, he said.
UF used to have a teaching and learning center, but because of budget cuts officials concentrated the funding into a learning center for technology. That was the area in which faculty members seemed to encounter the most problems, Lavelli said.
The center holds brown bag lunches so that faculty members can learn in a nonthreatening environment, she added.
UF has also started a scholar-in-residence program that allows a faculty member from one college to spend a semester in another. Under that program, a biology professor spent a semester in art and art history. He studied what professors in that department did to keep their students engaged. Now he is developing a set of best practices that might apply across disciplines, regardless of differences such as class size, Lavelli said.
Overcome challenges to accountability
Once faculty members achieve tenure, addressing problems that become apparent through evaluations becomes a bigger challenge.
Newer faculty members bring in interesting best practices and an understanding of the changing needs of students, Murray said. But tenured faculty members are less eager to try new strategies, she said.
Lavelli hasn’t had any tenured faculty members with performance issues, but if their research productivity dropped, she could assign them a heavier teaching load.