Themes in the National Discussion on Reforming STEM Teaching Evaluation

Ann Austin, Michigan State University

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published May 5, 2021 11:06am

The January 2021 National Dialogue on Reforming Stem Teaching Evaluation in Higher Education, hosted by the National Academies of Sciences Roundtable on Systemic Reform in Undergraduate Stem Education, in collaboration with AAU, APLU, ACSCN, and the TEval Project, involved faculty and administrative leaders from a variety of institutional types in very engaged conversation about teaching evaluation and innovative institutional projects. The lively conversation was evidence of the growing interest nationally in identifying models for more wholistic, effective, and inclusive forms of teaching evaluation as well as resources for initiating campus-wide discussions about reform in teaching evaluation.

Attendees in the dialogue gained many ideas and resources, all shared in an atmosphere of mutual commitment to improving teaching evaluation and teaching quality. I was particularly interested in two themes woven throughout the discussions: why is teaching evaluation gaining attention nationally, and what are some of the challenges related to efforts to improve approaches to teaching evaluation.

What is motivating interest in teaching evaluation? How can attention to teaching evaluation contribute to broader institutional agendas? Several answers emerged in the dialogue:

  • Reform in teaching evaluation is one lever for change in efforts to create institutional cultures that more fully value teaching. When faculty start to discuss how to evaluate teaching, they need to consider and identify elements of effective teaching in their fields.
  • Discussions of teaching evaluation can help faculty create more inclusive, equitable learning contexts, and reduce the impact of implicit bias in classrooms. A conversation initially focused on the logistics of evaluation often moves to consideration of how learning occurs in the specific field, and how teaching can more fully support learning for the full array of students.
  • More wholistic approaches to teaching evaluation address some of the concerns associated with traditional student evaluations. For example, while students can provide feedback on some aspects of a course, peers are more qualified to evaluate how the content of a course is situated in the body of knowledge of the discipline. Creating evaluation approaches that include a wider spectrum of perspectives—based on peer observation and self-reflection, as well as student evaluation—diminishes biases that can emerge when only student ratings are used.
  • Reform in teaching evaluation can bring recognition to the wide array of work that is involved in effective teaching, including curriculum development, identifying resources, designing effective strategies to scaffold learning, assessing learning outcomes, providing feedback, and engaging in course revision. Evaluation processes that highlight the various aspects of effective teaching help elevate consideration of teaching quality in the overall faculty reward system.
  • More wholistic approaches to teaching evaluation that include peer evaluation and self-reflection provide expanded perspectives and useful feedback to instructors as they reflect upon their teaching practice and seek to improve their efforts in support of student learning. Such feedback is especially useful as many instructors are learning to teach effectively in the online context.

The National Dialogue also surfaced some of the challenges or issues that arise in response to efforts to reform teaching evaluation. Several caught my attention as important to consider in campus-wide discussions about reforming teaching evaluation:

  • Developing new approaches to the evaluation of teaching must be seen as a cultural issue. Faculty prize their autonomy; observation by peers in a classroom is not customary and challenges the norm of faculty autonomy. Getting faculty buy-in or engagement in departmental efforts to change teaching evaluation is also difficult because of time constraints and pressures to prioritize research or other aspects of academic work over teaching. Reforming teaching evaluation requires a heightened sense of shared responsibility for student learning among faculty members asked to observe and discuss teaching with colleagues. Part of this culture change needs to emphasize the importance of faculty time spent on reflection and teaching improvement within the allocation of time to faculty work.
  • Faculty may assume that the particularities of their own context preclude collaborative efforts to reform teaching evaluation. Thus, plans to reform teaching evaluation must recognize and honor the diversity of contexts and approaches in which teaching occurs. Teaching practice varies based on factors such as disciplinary cultures, class size, type of class (laboratory, lecture, or field work), level of course, and in-person or online context. These variations must be considered in developing new approaches to teaching evaluation.
  • Collecting data alone is not the goal; rather, using the findings from evaluation leads to changes in teaching. Attention to graphic and visual approaches to presenting data can support faculty reflection and sensemaking.

Attention to reforming teaching evaluation is gaining traction across the country at many institutions. If these issues resonate with your own interests in improving the quality of teaching, you may want to consider some of these options:

  • Look into whether and where teaching evaluation is under discussion at your own institution, and consider getting involved.
  • Review the information on the National Dialogue and watch for other national-level opportunities to connect with colleagues involved in teaching evaluation reform. Sessions and posters at the upcoming ASCN conference will address this topic.
  • ASCN is creating a repository of resources concerning teaching evaluation. Share your contributions here: Teaching Evaluation Change Initiatives (
  • Continue this conversation on the Perspectives on Evaluating Effective Teaching blog.