Two policies affecting the evaluation and employment of Boise State University professors and faculty were revised during the end of the spring 2022 semester by a committee composed of students and faculty members.
The newly revised Policy 4300, better known as the Student Evaluation of Faculty Policy, along with a brand new Assessment of Faculty Teaching Policy will change the way student feedback is used by the university in making decisions.
“It became pretty clear that part of the [problem] was that they couldn’t agree on what the purpose of course evaluations were and how to evaluate faculty,” Michelle Payne said. “So the group decided to develop a policy that described what it is or how it is that faculty should be evaluated as teachers.”
Payne is the assistant provost for Academic Leadership Faculty Affairs at Boise State and chairs both teaching evaluation committees.
The committee had originally proposed the Assessment of Faculty Teaching Policy to the Faculty Senate. However, they soon realized it would not be able to pass on its own.
“So we brought this policy for assessing faculty teaching to the Senate and the senator said, ‘we’re still really concerned about the way the course evaluation policy describes the purpose of course evaluations because there’s so much research about how biased they can be that they don’t actually correlate to teaching effectiveness,’” Payne said.
In other words, the only way for the new policy to pass would be to revise the way information from student course evaluations is used.
For the committee, this meant changing the weight it holds on how the university assesses the job performance of faculty members.
“Student course evaluations are read by department chairs and they inform the faculty members’ rating and teaching, and that’s one of the factors that goes into merit pay and those kinds of things,” Payne said.
According to Shawn Simonson, a professor and faculty associate in the Center for Teaching and Learning, part of the problem with the way the university uses data from student course evaluations is that the information isn’t always accurate or appropriate for measuring faculty performance.
“There is a lot of research that suggests that student course evaluations are not a comprehensive or maybe even a good tool to assess the quality of teaching in a course,” Simonson said. “I can tell you that student course evaluations have been the sole criteria that have led to people not being promoted, or even detained at the institution.”
The way Policy 4300 was originally written required only these evaluations as tools to assess or evaluate teaching, which could contain biased or discriminatory information.
“Think about who fills out the student course evaluations, who fills out surveys in general. It’s usually people who have something to say, and usually something negative to say,” Simonson said. “Often, courses that are core requirements get more negative evaluations because students don’t really want to be there, which affects their learning.”
In addition to evidence of biased evaluations of STEM and required courses, which tend to get lower scores, trends have also been observed across the country of lower scores for female instructors and persons of non-majority ethnicities and races.
“So the idea in this committee is to reduce the bias and increase the quality of feedback about the student experience,” Simonson said.
Considering that course evaluations can be treated as determining factors of tenure status and merit pay, the committee’s goal is to turn student evaluations into tools for improvement for professors, rather than indicators of effective teaching.
“Student course evaluations are student perceptions of their learning experience and should primarily be used by faculty to help improve their teaching and to find more effective ways to help students learn,” Payne said. “Not as a measure, or certainly not as the only measure of whether a faculty member is a good teacher and deserves promotion.”
In terms of changes to the course evaluations themselves, some of the questions are being revised to accurately reflect what students are best-positioned to give feedback on.
“A lot of faculty at Boise State really do care about their teaching and whether or not students are learning. And we are trying to find a way to really measure this. Because if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” Simonson said.
The committee is set to present both policy drafts to the Faculty Senate during the start of the 2022 fall semester.