The westernmost institution in the University of North Carolina system, Western Carolina University (WCU) was founded in 1889 and is a regional comprehensive institution of approximately 11,000 students. For full-time faculty members, the Annual Faculty Evaluation (AFE) includes an assessment of teaching, scholarship, and service. This essay focuses on the current process at WCU for the evaluation of teaching and offers a proposal for how it could be adjusted to align the assessment goals of the institution with the faculty’s work in the classroom.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
The WCU Faculty Handbook (referred to throughout the rest of this essay as ‘the Handbook’) notes that, “The faculty at Western Carolina University is committed to the idea that effective teaching maximizes student learning. As such we define teaching excellence as the facilitation of engaged and ambitious learning.”1 While both of these sentences end with the word “learning,” the process of evaluating teaching is focused on three areas: Pedagogical Content Knowledge, Professional Administration of the Class, and Student Assessment of Instruction. The first two areas include a reflective essay by the faculty member and a two-part peer review by departmental colleagues consisting of an examination of classroom teaching and the consideration of teaching materials such as syllabi, tests, and other pedagogical tools. Student course evaluations, called Student Assessment of Instruction (SAI), are also part of the evaluation. Focused largely on perceptions of the teaching act rather than learning, such assessments are a ubiquitous part of faculty life—one whose worth is a source of endless debate.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge is further described in the Handbook:
Effective teachers remain current in their fields, know how students learn, and recognize what prior information, including misconceptions, students bring to their courses. Most important, they know how to combine these three kinds of knowledge to create teaching acts that lead to student learning. Shulman (1987) has called this combination “pedagogical content knowledge” to distinguish it from content knowledge alone or pedagogy alone.2
Lee S. Shulman’s “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform” was published in Harvard Educational Review in 1987.3 A newly-hired faculty member with content knowledge in his or her field is an expert, but a person with content knowledge who can also transmit it to students is a true pedagogue. As Shulman notes:
… the key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy, in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by the students.4
Shulman’s “Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” and the current paradigm at Western Carolina University upon which it is based, is largely focused on the work of individual instructors in individual courses. The second paragraph regarding Pedagogical Content Knowledge in the Handbook views the act of teaching as a solitary one, tailored to specific classes:
An instructor’s pedagogical content knowledge is reflected in the teaching acts that represent a discipline’s central concepts, skills and recent advances through a variety of means, including classroom explanations, assignments, and other course requirements. Teachers become more effective as they repeatedly engage in these teaching acts and find out what is easiest and most difficult for their students and modify their teaching accordingly.5
But how are faculty supposed to “find out what is easiest and most difficult for their students and modify their teaching accordingly”? In the past, the only way to effect pedagogical change was to “repeatedly engage in these teaching acts”—in other words, repetition and experience were the main guides. At Western Carolina University there is a new emphasis on the assessment of program-level Student Learning Outcomes. This shift in focus is an opportunity to mentor faculty to view both their teaching and student learning in broader contexts beyond their own classroom in the form of program, college, and university learning goals. Assessment is now a vehicle through which to “find out what is easiest and most difficult for their students and modify their teaching accordingly.”
The WCU Handbook includes a bibliography of sources on the evaluation of teaching. It shows that even in Shulman’s time there were those who called upon evaluation to be based in both teaching and learning. Although more than two decades old, one of these articles is still worth careful consideration.
The Learning Paradigm
“From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” by Robert Barr and John Tagg was published in Change in 1995.6 Although appearing just eight years after Shulman, its approach to the evaluation of teaching is radically different and wholly modern in tone. Barr and Tagg classified Shulman’s approach as the “Instruction Paradigm,” an antiquated system in which “teaching conceive[d] primarily as delivering 50-minute lectures—the mission of the college is to deliver instruction.”7
In marked contrast, what Barr and Tagg call the “Learning Paradigm” views student learning from the perspective of both the institution and the individual classroom:
The Learning Paradigm…opens up the truly inspiring goal that each graduating class learns more than the previous graduating class. In other words, the Learning Paradigm envisions the institution itself as a learner—over time, it continuously learns how to produce more learning with each graduating class, each entering student.8
This high-altitude, perhaps even rosy view is intriguing, but how can the Learning Paradigm and institutional assessment join forces in practical ways to transform the evaluation of teaching? In a passage that sounds remarkably contemporary rather than two decades old, Barr and Tagg wrote:
The Learning Paradigm necessarily incorporates the perspective of the assessment movement. While this movement has been underway for at least a decade, under the dominant instruction paradigm it has not penetrated very far into normal organizational practice.
Our faculty evaluation systems, for example, evaluate the performance of faculty in teaching terms, not learning terms. An instructor is typically evaluated by her peers or dean on the basis of whether lectures are organized, whether she covers the appropriate material, whether she shows interest in an understanding of her subject matter, whether she is prepared for class, and whether she respects her students’ questions and comments. All these factors evaluate the instructor’s performance in teaching terms. They do not raise the issue of whether students are learning, let alone demand evidence of learning or provide for its rewards.9
In the David Orr Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts at Western Carolina University we are exploring the idea that faculty members should write a reflection on student learning in the teaching section of the Annual Faculty Evaluation narrative. By focusing on ways that the faculty member is aware of and working toward student learning, this reflection encourages them to consider their work in course-level and program-level assessment. In other words, this reflection would challenge them to consider the ways in which the work in their individual classroom contributes not just to student learning but also to the mission of the unit and of the institution.
Currently, the WCU Handbook provides examples of open-ended questions to guide faculty in writing their narrative on the evaluation of teaching. Similarly, prompts that focus on student learning could be provided, such as:
During this evaluation period, to what extent did you
- work to assure that students are learning what you want them to learn?
- utilize student self-reflections or self-assessments as part of the course?
- gather evidence, artifacts, or data to enhance your individual efforts to assure student learning or, as needed, provide such evidence to your unit or college?
- incorporate program-level Student Learning Outcomes into your course syllabi and/or course content as applicable to your teaching assignment?
- participate in unit-wide or college-wide student learning and/or assessment efforts or activities such as service, research, or mentoring?
Having risen through the ranks from Adjunct to Full Professor, like my colleagues, I would balk at being required to write an evaluative essay about my assessment activities in addition to my evaluation of teaching. We are not proposing to add more onerous requirements to faculty evaluation, and we are aware that faculty members are hired as content experts and instructors, not as specialists in direct and indirect assessment methods. A statement on assessment as part of the annual evaluation of teaching should not presuppose or require expertise in assessment. Rather, the short essay would provide a vehicle through which to explore the course content with regard to learning, not just instruction. In addition, this narrative would allow departmental collegial review committees and/or department heads an opportunity to provide formative feedback on teaching and learning efforts and on the extent to which the faculty member participates in assessment activities toward the benefit of the program as a whole.
Faculty sometimes view assessment as a purely administrative duty layered on top of their individual, content-based teaching assignment. Incorporating a reflection on learning and assessment efforts into the Annual Faculty Evaluation will require a faculty member to engage with his or her assessment efforts in relation to both individual courses and to overall program goals. More importantly, such a reflection would move beyond an evaluation of personal teaching technique toward a meaningful exploration of the extent to which we are working together to assure that our students are learning what we hope that they are learning.
- WCU Faculty Handbook, 2017-18, 75.
- Ibid, 76.
- Shulman, Lee. “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform.” Harvard Educational Review 57, no. 1 (1987): 1-23.
- Ibid, 15.
- Handbook, 76.
- Barr, Robert B., and John Tagg. “From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 27, no. 6 (1995): 12-26.
- Ibid, 12.
- Ibid, 14.
- Ibid, 16-17.