On Oct. 21, student evaluations of Willamette faculty were due for the 2018-19 school year. A total of 29 faculty members were reviewed for last year’s cycle. These evaluations serve as one of the contributing indicators of a professor’s effectiveness in terms of teaching and advising.
Although research, creative work and involvement in Willamette governance are all important aspects of faculty duties, the Faculty Handbook emphasizes that “Willamette University’s College of Liberal Arts is first and foremost a teaching institution. Faculty value ongoing pedagogical development, creativity, risk-taking and inclusivity.”
This focus on reaching and educating students through professors’ teaching methods and practices is why student evaluations play a role in the faculty review process.
The Faculty Council, an elected body of faculty members, has the job of reviewing each individual every two, three or five years, which is determined based on how long the professor has worked at the University. The Council also possesses the power to request special reviews of faculty if needed.
The evaluation of teaching itself is based on four avenues of information gathering: Student Assessments of Instruction (SAIs), colleague letters of review, personal assessments and reflection and student evaluations.
SAIs are the evaluations that students provide at the end of each course; the colleague letters are written by professors who observed courses, and the self-assessment by the professor under review is an account of their own teaching successes and improvements they have made to their curriculum.
Student evaluations involve the collection of information through three different methods. One of these is the faculty member’s submission of a list of 10 to 15 names of students who have taken their courses or worked with them in some capacity. Additionally, the registrar’s office compiles a list of the professor’s advisees and then chooses either three or four students using a random number generator. This process is also used to create a list of 20 students who have been in at least one of the person under review’s classes in the past two years.
The students who are selected and requested to complete evaluations are not required to do so, but as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Ruth Feingold explained, “even with 20 letters, it’s only a small sample of the students whose lives a professor has touched, but the larger the number, the more we’re able to see patterns.”
The number of letters that are submitted for a professor under review can vary, with some reviews resulting in fewer than 10 student evaluations. Normally, however, there are between 15 and 20 letters from students.
In regards to the contents of the letters themselves, Feingold says that the more specific a student can be about a professor, the better. She said, “Speak to things that make the professor distinctive in their job—anything unusual that stands out (in or outside of class). Don’t be afraid to bring up problems—but, in this, try to be specific as well.”
From these letters, which are not considered if they’re submitted anonymously, the Faculty Council determines its stance on the issues of retention, promotion and tenure; these recommendations of the Council are then given to the University President by the CLA Dean. From there, the Board of Trustees is given the information in order to make a final decision.
Overall, student evaluations are a considerable part of helping the Faculty Council and other reviewing University bodies understand and evaluate a professor’s performance in the classroom. Feingold said, “Faculty colleagues are in a better position to evaluate some aspects of an individual’s teaching because they themselves are teachers—but they also don’t have the experience of sitting in a particular professor’s class all semester, receiving feedback on papers, going to office hours, being advised, etc. … Student letters can be an important early indicator of problems that—when flagged—professors can work on correcting.”