Jennifer Spear attending the Department of History’s Annual Public Lecture Series. Photo Credit: SFU Creative Studios.

FASS News, Faculty, History, Faculty

Developing a robust and flexible teaching assessment

December 07, 2021
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By Tiffany Lau

Providing engaging, dynamic, and innovative education is a core tenant of SFU’s central mission, and one of the ways the university gauges the quality of its education is through the teaching assessments of its teaching faculty. Studies have shown that Student Evaluation on Teaching (SETs) used as the only method of assessment is unreliable and over the years have gathered quite a lot of criticism for not being taken seriously by students, the data being inconsistent, biased, and not providing constructive feedback.

Appointed as FASS Teaching Fellow in September 2021, Dr. Jennifer Spear from the Department of History is working with FASS Tenure and Promotion Committees (TPCs) to develop an equitable, robust, and flexible teaching assessment with manageable methods for her focus.

SFU’s Teaching Assessment Working Group (TAWG) is a committee that was created in 2017 to establish conversations among faculty to improve teaching values and practices at SFU. It published its final report in 2019, stating how relying only on SETs provides a very narrow and subjective reflection on how a faculty member is teaching effectively.

“The student evaluations are great for revealing the student’s experience with the course and instructor,” states Spear, “but not for evaluating the effectiveness which is what TPCs are reviewing.”

To remedy this issue, Spear says TPCs need to work towards developing new teaching assessments with a multi-method approach towards evaluation.

“The multiple method approach will not only ensure that we are not evaluating from a single moment but from a continuum of progress” says Spear “and it will also provide a more holistic evaluation through various voices and perspectives.”

A multi-method approach means including perspectives from students, peers, and the faculty members themselves.

Although SETs should not be used as the only marker of teaching effectiveness, TAWG notes that it does provide important insight on a student’s perception of the quality of the teaching experience, the personal impact of the instructor on their learning and their experience of inclusion in the course, and the instructor's enthusiasm towards the subject.

Spear notes that adding peer observation as one of the methods will bring in an important angle of assessment. Observing fellow faculty, peers may observe the class in-person or simply review the course content, material, and syllabi to reflect on the appropriateness of the course. For example, they may remark on whether the material that is taught is appropriate for the level of the course or if the content and assignments are related to the topic of the course.

Finally, including faculty members’ perspectives through personal reflection will allow them to contextualize their teaching philosophy and the choices that they have made through the course or semester and their progress.

“The personal reflections are great,” says Spear, recalling the Department of History’s bi-annual salary reviews that require faculty members to write up a reflection. She notes that reading the progress of her colleagues even helped her make improvements to her own teaching.

The multi-method approach also allows diversity and flexibility for departments to choose various methods of evaluation that suit their discipline best.

“For example, in lab sciences it may be more appropriate to consider graduate supervision as an element of research rather than teaching, whereas in history, graduate students have their own independent research, rather than working on the faculty member’s research which makes their relationship more of a teaching role between supervisor and mentor,” Spear states.

Noting that flexibility will be the key to the success of this teaching assessment, Spear points out that both the 2019 TAWG report and the 2019-2022 Collective Agreement are written with a lot of flexibility to allow departments the liberty to create their own criteria. Departments are highly encouraged to consider the purpose and values of teaching in their discipline before creating their criteria for assessment.

“It’s important that we keep that openness and to allow different approaches, so departments get to define their own method of assessment,” acknowledges Spear.

The implementation of multi-method model of teaching assessment is in its initial stages, and Spear acknowledges there is still a lot of work to be done, such as setting up support workshops for faculty and departments, but she is positive about being in the development and implementation stages.

“Many people are excited and see the necessity to develop a new teaching assessment for the benefit and future improvement of SFU’s education,” says Spear.

For more information, resources and updates on workshops please check the FASS Teaching Fellows website and CEE’s Support for Teaching Assessment.