On May 4 at the Labatt Health Sciences Building, Harry Murray, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Western, lectured to faculty members and other interested parties on teacher evaluations.
The talk gave a history of teacher evaluations, assessed the effectiveness of the current seven-point rating scale, and explored some alternative measures that could supplement the students’ evaluation of their educators.
Murray found that student evaluations have produced some improvement in teachers’ ratings over the last few decades. However, ratings were inconsistent from faculty to faculty. Such statistical trends have some faculty members questioning the relevance of the rating system.
“My first year, I got very low ratings and a multitude of prose comments, most of which were negative,” said Mary Bawden, the year-four coordinator of the undergraduate nursing program. “The second year I got quite high ratings and a certificate of commendation from the faculty, and then in the third year I again got low scores and lots of negative comments. And then this past year I got high scores again.”
Murray explained that the evaluation system can be effective if the results are properly mediated to the subjects.
“If the department chair really takes these evaluations seriously, and tries to help or get help for people who are not doing very well in a very positive and supportive way, rather than condemning them and being negative about it, I think that would lead to faculties improving their performance over time.”
He also felt proper motivation would improve teachers’ ratings.
“I think faculty members have to believe that these evaluations of teaching are taken seriously in a reward system — salary decisions, promotion and tenure decisions — so there has to be that perception that there really is something that counts in order for them to put the time and effort into improving their teaching.”
Murray also discussed alternative evaluation methods, including measuring the amount of “high level thought questions” on professors’ exams and implementing a colleague evaluation system. He stressed the colleague system as a particularly important measure and added that it should be used as a supplement to student ratings rather than a replacement for them.
Denise Reaume, a learning skills counsellor in the Student Development Centre who attended the event, supported the idea. She noted that the University of Toronto’s psychology department “required that all of the faculty in the department as a matter of course had to submit their outlines and exams to the Chair, and there was a common file where all of the faculty could see what was taught.”
“Many people recommend it, but it doesn’t seem to get adopted as much as it should,” Murray said of colleague evaluations. “I’ve heard of it being used in some universities in some departments. Sometimes the colleagues actually go into class and watch the teacher teach. Sometimes they look at documents and materials and judge the substantive quality of the course.”