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Monday, April 16, 2012

Tomorrow's Professor: The Role of Student Evaluations in Tenure and Promotion: Is Effective Teaching Really Being Measured?

The Role of Student Evaluations in Tenure and Promotion: Is Effective Teaching Really Being Measured?

As a dean, the fall semester always left me a bit uneasy as I discussed the tenure and promotion process with my faculty members. As at most colleges and universities, our institution states that the criteria for tenure and/or promotion are based on teaching, research, and service. In my opinion, service to the college is demonstrated through various activities such as committee memberships, college lectures, and community involvement. Research is documented most easily through publications. However, teaching, and, in fact, effective teaching, remains unclear. After years of discussing the importance of student evaluations with faculty, and actually having one faculty member suggest that they should serve doughnuts on the day they survey the students to better their evaluations, a colleague and I began to explore what students and faculty really believe is demonstrated by the phrase effective teaching.

According to Laube, Massoni, Sprague, and Ferber (2007), administrators routinely rely on the quantitative rating of students when attempting to document effective teaching. These ratings, which are administered at the end of the semester, most often involve the faculty member leaving the classroom while students answer a variety of questions related to classroom management, class content, and the faculty member?s delivery of subject matter. Since the 1980s higher education has routinely incorporated these student evaluations into personnel decisions (Thorne, 1980). However, for more than three decades, many questions have been emerging about the validity of student ratings for the purpose of faculty evaluations (Sheehan, 1975), and to date few questions have been answered.

An article in this publication stated that faculty members, regardless of their institutional affiliation, expect evaluations of their teaching (Ewing & Crockford, 2008). A study on student assessments of teaching suggested that student evaluations of instructors were overemphasized in the tenure and promotion process (Wattiaux, Moore, Rastani, & Crump, 2010). If student evaluations are to be a key component in the documentation of effective teaching, then let us be certain that effective teaching is being measured. In addition, if student evaluations are not truly evaluations of teaching effectiveness, then let us not assert that we are measuring effective teaching through these procedures. As a dean or department chair, one is charged with guiding and protecting their faculty (McCabe & Bryant, 2009); to do so they must be provided accurate information.

My question to other deans and department chairs is simply this: If we are dependent on student evaluations of faculty for tenure and promotion, should we not first be assured that what we assume is being measured (effective teaching) is truly the measure we are obtaining? Our research attempted to address this question.


The research design for this project was cross-sectional, with surveys administered to 265 faculty and students at a private liberal arts college. The survey was designed to capture demographic information on respondents (sex, rank of professor/ level of academic standing, and discipline/major) and provide the respondents the opportunity to define the phrase effective teacher. This opportunity for definition was afforded by providing a list of thirty options to the respondents and asking them to rank from 1 to 4 (with 1 being their best choice) their response to the question: How do you define an effective teacher? For clarity, options for the answers to the question included statements such as: motivates students to do well in the course, uses a variety of teaching methods, makes the grading requirements clear, and so on. The survey instrument was pretested on both faculty members and students outside the population of this study to help ensure the reliability and validity o
 f the instrument. Data were analyzed in terms of a frequency table to display general trends for reporting the findings.


The population for this study was 32 faculty members and 233 students from a variety of disciplines (social sciences, humanities, math, physical sciences, health, business, and education). Approximately 40% of the students were male and approximately 60% were female. Approximately 50% of the faculty members were male and approximately 50% were female.

As displayed in Table 1, some of the more common definitions of an effective teacher by students were: a sense of humor (15%), someone who is able to relate to students? lives (13%), someone with patience and flexibility (21%), someone who is able to keep students? interest (44%), and someone who clearly indicates materials to be tested (16%). As displayed in Table 2, some of the more common definitions of an effective teacher by faculty members were: the love of the subject (50%), an instructor who outlines the course expectations (22%), someone who utilizes a variety of teaching methods (24%), someone who is organized (44%), and someone who encourages student questions (22%).

Table 1. Definition of an Effective Teacher by Faculty and Students

Faculty (n = 32) Students (n = 233)

Number Percent Number Percent
A sense of humor 1 3.1 34 14.6
Able to relate to students? lives 1 3.1 30 12.9
Patience and flexibility 2 6.2 49 21.0
Able to keep students? interest 2 6.2 103 44.2
Clearly indicates material to be tested 1 3.1 36 15.5

Table 2. Definition of an Effective Teacher by Faculty and Students

Faculty (n = 32) Students (n = 233)

Number Percent Number Percent

Uses a variety of teaching methods 13 40.6 56 24.0
A love of the subject 16 50.0 77 33.0
Outlines course expectations 7 21.9 23 10.3
Organized 14 43.7 30 12.9
Encourages student questions 7 21.9 15 6.4


The results of this exploratory study provide some interesting insights into the differences in student versus faculty perceptions of an effective teacher. In general, students and faculty define effective teaching very differently. From a faculty perspective, an effective teacher should love the subject and be able to present it in multiple ways. From a student perspective, an effective teacher should be funny, interesting, and able to relate to students.

Here lies our dilemma. From an administrator?s position, if we are dependent on student evaluations to better our professors? efforts in the classroom and, ultimately, a professor?s tenure and promotion, then are we not concerned when many students perceive an effective teacher as someone who perhaps does not deliver correct information but who keeps them entertained?

If we are interested in effective teaching, then perhaps other methods for evaluating teaching (peer observations, evaluations from those in the field of education, or the model of ?teaching to the test?) should be incorporated into the mix. It is disconcerting to think that an effective teacher may be denied tenure because he or she did not induce laughter in the classroom. Again, if we are truly interested in rewarding effective teaching, then let us be assured that we understand the various definitions of effective teaching. If colleges and universities are committed to the idea of teaching and learning, then they must begin by defining this amorphous phrase of effective teaching. Research such as this study only begins to address this issue.

Kimberly A. McCabe is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Leslie S. Layne is assistant professor of English, both at Lynchburg College. Email:,


Ewing, J. K., & Crockford, B. (2008, Winter). Changing the culture of expectations: Building a culture of evidence. The Department Chair, 18(3), 23?25.

Laube, H., Massoni, K., Sprague, J., & Ferber, A. L. (2007). The impact of gender on the evaluation of teaching: What we know and what we can do. National Women?s Studies Association Journal, 19(3), 87?104.

McCabe, K. A., & Bryant, S. M. (2009, Spring). Motivations of a dean: Change or profit? The Department Chair, 19(4), 17?20.

Sheehan, D. (1975). On the invalidity of student ratings for administrative personnel decisions. Journal of Higher Education, 46(6), 687?700.

Thorne, G. (1980). Student ratings of instructors: From scores to administrative decisions. Journal of Higher Education, 51(2), 207?214.

Wattiaux, M., Moore, J., Rastani, R., & Crump, P. (2010). Excellence in teaching for promotion and tenure in animal and dairy sciences at doctoral/research universities: A faculty perspective. Journal of Dairy Sciences, 93(7), 3365?3376.


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