Thursday, 28 June 2012

Some Thoughts About Teaching Evaluation

It's been a long break between posts.  I've been caught up in the mayhem of end of semester panicked emails from students and then.... marking, marking and more marking!  Amongst all of this the students' evaluation of teaching are also released.  I generally perform OK with student evaluations - not brilliantly - I tend to polarise students, in that they either rate my teaching very highly or very lowly, giving me a solid statistically 'average' score overall.  Student evaluations, while undoubtedly flawed, are very valuable to my career.  Firstly, they are as close as I get to genuine feedback on my work and secondly, good results in student evaluation help me to secure work in future semesters.  Around my school it's a known trend that student evaluations of tutors and evaluations of the unit go hand in hand, therefore unit coordinators tend to look for tutors with good scores.  I have learned a lot from students' evaluations about my teaching over the years, once I have recovered from the initial shock of some of the more abrasive remarks.  I have also seen good friends completely demoralised by the hurtful comments students write under the safety net of anonymity (she writes as an anonymous blogger).  If we have to provide feedback and grades to our students face to face, why can't their feedback be provided in the same manner?

While I can't rigorously ground the argument I am about to present, anecdotally, I suggest that student evaluations may impact how critically we mark students' work.  For the majority of students the only method for them to evaluate their education is by the grades they receive - the better the grades they attain the better they feel about the quality of their education.  Therefore, I think, there is an undercurrent here to dish out better grades in order to receive better teaching evaluation scores.  I am always made aware of this when I work with first time tutors who grade students' work so harshly.  Although it does also take a while for new tutors to understand the university can't simulate the complexities of practice and therefore students can't respond and produce the same level of work.    

As a tutor I receive plenty of feedback throughout the semester informally, through conversations and emails with students.  These conversations are frank and helpful to my developing teaching style.  The problem with the anonymous student survey is that a student who has hardly attended a class can use teaching evaluation forms as recourse for a grade they are unhappy with, rather than discussing the mark face to face.  My suggestion is that teaching evaluations shouldn't be anonymous.  I do value students' feedback on my teaching but I think the manner in which it is delivered is unfair to teaching staff.  David Holmberg wrote about the pain of student evaluations in an article titled 'Student Evaluations' in the New York Times magazine in 2007.  He wrote:

"A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them [student evaluations] as 'customer service.'  Translation:  He has been burned by his students.  But his larger meaning is that higher education..... is increasingly market driven and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot"

I think this is a fairly uneven criticism of evaluation systems (although I know many who would agree with Holmberg).  I think his comments on the market driven premise to teaching evaluation are spot on.  On that note, I wanted to finish this post with a quote by Chris Hedges on education. 


Friday, 1 June 2012

Uni Casual Survey Results

The National Tertiary Education Union survey results on Casual Teaching and Research Staff 2012 are now available online.  I think NTEU and Uni Casual have put together a great publication from the survey results that highlight a number of issues for casual higher ed workers in Australia.  The summary of the results written by Jeannie Rea outline that casual staff experience stress as a result their insecure employment, work significantly more hours than they are paid to and lack sufficient access to resources to assist them in their role.  All of these points I have written about throughout the short history of this blog.  On the one hand I find this almost comforting and re-affirming that my experience is the normal, on the other hand I'm disappointed that universities are unable to provide adequate, basic conditions for their casual staff.

The stress associated with insecure work I have briefly touched on previously through the Howe Inquiry and perhaps I will write more on this next week.  I have also written about the impact of technology on managing contact time with students.  In the survey results over 80% of respondents (p.9) responded to emails or received calls on their own equipment after their contract had ended and they were no longer receiving payment.  Unfortunately, I have recently found myself being very selective about which student emails I will respond to, so that I can manage my time.  I recently received an email from a student who was disputing a grade and in the midst of replying to the email I was told I had to move from the one hotdesk that is shared between sessional teaching staff, casual research staff and one administration staff.  I'm not sure how many casual academics work in my school but we are a school of over 1000 students, so there's quite a number of casual staff and, frankly, one computer to share between all of us just doesn't cut it.  I asked for some more time to reply to my email, as it was from a Maters student who needed their mark clarified as soon as possible and was offered a computer in the student labs!!  I explained that this a totally inappropriate proposition for me to respond to a confidential email from a student whilst surrounded by students - eventually, I was allowed to finish my email.

Out of all the points raised by the casual staff survey, I personally think the lack of access to resources is the most pertinent.  If I was provided with adequate resources it would probably save me considerable time in performing my job - it would most likely reduce and simplify some of the out of hours work we are expected to do.  About 90% of my personal internet data usage is for my work at the university along with the majority of the usage of my phone and personal computer.  This problem could so easily be addressed if universities could simply provide access to phones, computers, internet, photocopying, printing and scanning freely and easily.  Access to these resources would seem like basic rights to an employee, wouldn't it?  According to the survey only around 50% (p.8) of respondents had access to space for student consultation, a phone and/or a computer.  This could be a relatively easy way for universities to improve conditions for their casual staff.