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Evaluating your teaching practice

Evaluation isn’t one thing to everyone. It takes place at different points in the curriculum and can be valued in many ways.  In this blog I provide an overview of good practice for evaluating your teaching and useful resources to support your practice. I then consider potential issues that occur in the evaluation process that can bias student feedback and negatively impact staff. 

What does evaluation look like to most of us?  

The reasons for monitoring and measuring our curriculum are common-sense: to ensure that our degrees live up to the high standards expected of the sector, and to ensure that students get the best education possible. How we do this depends on the nature of what and how we teach. You might think of end of unit evaluation feedback forms, annual programme reviews, or external audits for quality assurance, but they are not the only places you can use evaluation effectively. 

Evaluation can review: 

  • Individual units and/or whole programmes 
  • Teaching delivery styles and engagement
  • Student contribution and success 
  • Digital resources such as those hosted on BlackBoard and Re/Play 
  • Pedagogic approaches 
  • Course content 
  • And many more criteria! 

Here, multiple perspectives are invited into the conversation, most commonly from the students that we teach. We can extend evaluation to the experiences of those who contribute to our courses, such as postgraduate teaching assistants and professional services. Additionally, staff may wish to use personal reflective approaches to review their lived experience of teaching (this surfaces actively through the CREATE Scheme). 

When we try a new teaching approach there is an expectation that we will evaluate the success of the new approach used. It also makes sense to continue the evaluation year on year to ensure that the approach continues to work well, especially if there is change of teaching staff or other circumstance such as the impact of Covid-19. Core guidance recommends that we embed evaluation at multiple points, not just at the end of a term or a year. 

What are the benefits of evaluation? 

Depending on the questions you ask, and how you act upon the answers, evaluation can benefit you in many ways: 

  • Evidences success (which can also support staff progression)
  • Evidences how learning outcomes are met
  • Determines how students have improved skills and competencies
  • Identifies areas for updates and improvements
  • Ensures that the student voice is heard
  • Checks our assumptions and biases as to how effective our teaching is
  • Complements external audits and student surveys

Good principles for evaluation 

Anonymity 

Students need to feel that they can be honest when responding to feedback requests. Articulating how data is collected anonymously promotes authentic responses. 

Good design 

Asking the right questions gets the best data. Templates are available to support the design of feedback sheets (see University Policy for unit evaluationteaching assistant feedback template; and Dunworth & Sanchez 2016) It can be useful to use the same questions year on year to validate the reliability of the data (see Alderman, Towers & Bannah 2012). 

Time 

Student feedback should always be requested during timetabled time. Often, too little time is set aside, and this impacts the level of detail and the quality of feedback. Rushed responses are never going to be as useful as well considered ones for lenthy feedback forms. Given our increased use of digital resources, you can do quick “check ins” with your students as part of live sessions using tools like the polling facility in Collaborate. If you run a focus group, facilitation is key. To support student confidence, you might ask an external colleague to run this for you (ask BiLT team to help too!).  

Sharing 

Once you have compiled the evaluation data, why not share a summary version with the students who contributed? You can even tell them how you will address concerns. This can support students seeing the value in providing good feedback in the future and makes them feel listened to and respected. 

Full circle 

How will you use this data? How will it inform your future teaching choices? The evaluation process doesn’t end with looking at feedback, it needs to inform changes, updates and adaptations in your teaching as part of the cycle of continuous improvement. 

Self-care and support 

Feedback can make us feel elated, frustrated or crestfallen. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, especially if it’s personally directed at the choices we have made in our teaching. It’s important to recognise that sometimes feedback can be ill-considered and, at times, even cruel. The emotional impact of feedback can send us reeling and dent our confidence.

Evidence demonstrates that female members of staff are evaluated more harshly than their male counterparts (Flaherty 2018). Recent research in Sweden identifies how negative feedback is more common for early career teachers (Flodén 2017). Gender, racial and cultural bias are real issues and can manifest differently depending on the demographics of your student cohorts (see Fan et al 2019).

What can you do to challenge and alleviate these issues? 

Colleagues new to teaching should be actively supported by their School to build their confidence and resilience. Where gender, race, sexual identity, cultural bias, or any other discriminatory feedback is received, care should be taken by senior members of staff to support colleagues on the receiving end including how this can be psychologically distressing. The School should also exercise caution that it does not further compound the issue by penalising the affected staff (e.g. regarding progression, contract continuation or promotion). Line managers, heads of teaching and heads of school can actively offer empathetic support in these situations and protect staff from unwarranted penalties.  

Dr Aisling (Ash) Tierney – a.tierney@bristol.ac.uk  

Further resources

  • Our University Policy for unit evaluation provides guidance on how to implement evaluation at unit level, from its purpose  to frequency and operational principles. The appendixes to this document provide sample templates for how to structure a unit evaluation form. 
  • Evaluation and benchmarking of the Biochemistry MSci Research Training unit.
  • Quality Assurance Agency advice and guidance on monitoring and evaluating.