It’s the obligation of educational institutions to ensure the quality of students’ learning experiences. Ubiquitous across the country, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) have become the most effective and practical tool for colleges and universities to measure their own success. Each semester, students have the opportunity to provide feedback on courses and faculty, which are then used by the institution in planning, promotion and tenure decisions. While SETs aren’t without bias — or anomalies in the form of hostile responses — an Ontario arbitrator’s decision this summer to forbid Ryerson University from using SETs to measure teaching effectiveness for promotion or tenure decisions removes any stake that students have in their opinions of the quality of their education.
The adequacy of SETs has been debated in Ryerson collective bargaining sessions since as early as 2003. In 2009, a formal grievance was filed and earlier this year, the matter proceeded to a hearing where the Ryerson Faculty Association (RFA) argued that the results obtained from SETs are skewed by bias. Further, they argued that the averages of SET measures provide no useful information regarding teaching effectiveness. Two reports commissioned by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) appear to back them up, citing ethical concerns, flaws in methodology, and human rights issues — certain biases were shown to make SETs discriminatory against some groups of faculty.
Despite their flaws, SETs provide the most accurate and comprehensive information on teaching effectiveness. Academics have sought to develop alternative measures, but to date, they’ve yet to find a replacement that correlates measures with student learning and experience. Peer evaluations have been suggested as a suitable alternative but certainly, while faculty could attest to their colleagues’ level of preparedness and apparent dedication, their insights into the classroom are limited at best when compared to students who spend upwards of 80 hours a semester with one instructor. The removal of SETs from decisions of tenure and promotion, without a suitable alternative, tells students that the quality of instruction is independent of their learning experience.
As indicated in the case briefings, “the evaluation of teaching effectiveness for purposes of tenure and promotion is so important . . . [that] decisions need to be made on the best possible evidence.” It’s confounding that at an educational institution, the best possible evidence wouldn’t account for students’ experiences. While students may not be suited to provide input on the technical aspects of a course — like the methods of assessment or the course readings — they’re certainly suited to provide expert opinion on whether their instructor was approachable and whether the learnings were delivered effectively. Universities treat students as autonomous beings and claim to value their input. But if students can’t be the best judge of teaching effectiveness, who can?