Student Evaluations and Quality Instruction – How Do You Create an Effective Online Teacher?

Measuring quality instruction is extremely difficult in any field, be it K12, higher ed or professional development.  We talk about learning as a science, but if it is, it has some of the most unpredictable variables I’ve ever seen.  With that in mind, I figured I’d pose a question to you this week.  What are the elements of a good online instructor, or just a good teacher in general?

Student feedback is one of the key measurements we use in evaluating college faculty.  I can’t tell you how many evaluations I’ve filled out in my six years of Higher Ed education.  That said, I’m not sure how much I, as an 18 year old kid, or as a 23 year old overworked teacher, could tell how good the professor was.  I could tell you who I hated and who I loved but how did that measure into their effectiveness as an instructor?

I say that because I’d like to share an NPR article with you this week about the use of student feedback in professor evaluations.  As always, I’d like you to read the article yourself, but here are some of the key take-aways.

  1. There’s a sampling bias at play in student surveys. We cannot guarantee the objectivity of the evaluator as they are part of the instructional process.
  2. They’re rarely based on hard evidence. A student doesn’t have to provide examples in his or her evaluation in order to fill it out, they just have to fill in the bubbles.
  3. There’s an issue with compiling the data, if somebody is consistently getting adequate reviews while his colleague is running the gamut between exemplary and abysmal, who is the better teacher on paper?
  4. Most telling, most important, is that the study outlined in this article established a correlation between low student evaluations and high achievement. That means the less a student liked the professor, the higher their performance on objective assessments.

Item four on that list is the most concerning to me.  Students like all other consumers vote with their feet and we now have (not conclusive, but worth considering) evidence that they are voting for the easy A.  If this were a consumer driven industry, I’d be happy to oblige them but the truth of the matter is there’s a reason students from schools like Harvard and Stanford have an edge in the job market – there’s an assumption (never mind how true) that they were pushed harder and forced to grow more, making them better assets to their employers.

We have an incentive to listen to our clients (the students), and we shouldn’t ignore that, but we also have an ethical obligation to give them the skills they need to make use of their degrees, and holding professors accountable to  a system that undermines that obligation sounds like a disservice to everybody involved to me.

I’m not suggesting students shouldn’t have a say in faculty evaluation, and the surveys definitely have their place.  I’m merely concerned that they are factoring too much into who’s being brought back.  K12 institutions (wisely deciding not to hold teachers accountable to the opinions of a 7 year old) have implemented several initiatives that could be adapted to create a more holistic evaluation of online faculty:

  1. There are established best practices backed by research regarding course facilitation and development. Holding faculty accountable to those might be more helpful.  Consider developing a facilitation rubric for your faculty that factors into their evaluation.
  2. Walkthroughs of courses in progress. In online this is as simple as a program director logging into a course and looking at the ways the professor is facilitating discussions, grading activities and providing feedback to students.
  3. We already measure the quality of a course’s design in our Quality Reviews. Communicating those with faculty and helping them move towards building the best course possible is a great step forward.  It’s objective and measurable and becomes the basis for identifying growth.
  4. If we really wanted to crunch some numbers, establishing pre and post assessments for each course would be a great way to measure student growth. I’m not advocating for high-stakes testing, but having an objective feedback mechanism may be helpful.

I realize I’m over generalizing the evaluation process of a school, but the question is worth posing.  What do you believe makes for a good online instructor and how do you go about creating those?

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