Wooten, Courtney Adams, Brian Ray, and Jacob Babb. “WPAs Reading SETs: Toward an Ethical and Effective Use of Teaching Evaluations.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 40.1 (2016): 50-66. Print.
Courtney Adams Wooten, Brian Ray, and Jacob Babb report on a survey examining the use of Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs) by writing program administrators (WPAs).
According to Wooten et al., although WPAs appear to be dissatisfied with the way SETs are generally used and have often attempted to modify the form and implementation of these tools for evaluating teaching, they have done so without the benefit of a robust professional conversation on the issue (50). Noting that much of the research they found on the topic came from areas outside of writing studies (63), the authors cite a single collection on using SETs in writing programs by Amy Dayton that recommends using SETs formatively and as one of several measures to assess teaching. Beyond this source, they cite “the absence of research on SETs in our discipline” as grounds for the more extensive study they conducted (51).
The authors generated a list of WPA contact information at more than 270 institutions, ranging from two-year colleges to private and parochial schools to flagship public universities, and solicited participation via listservs and emails to WPAs (51). Sixty-two institutions responded in summer 2014 for a response rate of 23%; 90% of the responding institutions were four-year institutions.
Despite this low response rate, the authors found the data informative (52). They note that the difficulty in recruiting faculty responses from two-year colleges may have resulted from problems in identifying responsible WPAs in programs where no specific individual directed a designated writing program (52).
Their survey, which they provide, asked demographic and logistical questions to establish current practice regarding SETs at the responding institutions as well as questions intended to elicit WPAs’ attitudes toward the ways SETs affected their programs (52). Open-ended questions allowed elaboration on Likert-scale queries (52).
An important recurring theme in the responses involved the kinds of authority WPAs could assert over the type and use of SETs at their schools. Responses indicated that the degree to which WPAs could access student responses and could use them to make hiring decisions varied greatly. Although 76% of the WPAs could read SETS, a similar number indicated that department chairs and other administrators also examined the student responses (53). For example, in one case, the director of a first-year-experience program took primary charge of the evaluations (53). The authors note that WPAs are held accountable for student outcomes but, in many cases, cannot make personnel decisions affecting these outcomes (54).
Wooten et al. report other tensions revolving around WPAs’ authority over tenured and tenure-track faculty; in these cases, surveyed WPAs often noted that they could not influence either curricula nor course assignments for such faculty (54). Many WPAs saw their role as “mentoring” rather than “hiring/firing.” The WPAs were obliged to respond to requests from external authorities to deal with poor SETs (54); the authors note a “tacit assumption . . . that the WPA is not capable of interpreting SET data, only carrying out the will of the university” (54). They argue that “struggles over departmental governance and authority” deprive WPAs of the “decision-making power” necessary to do the work required of them (55).
The survey “revealed widespread dissatisfaction” about the ways in which SETs were administered and used (56). Only 13% reported implementing a form specific to writing; more commonly, writing programs used “generic” forms that asked broad questions about the teacher’s apparent preparation, use of materials, and expertise (56). The authors contend that these “indirect” measures do not ask about practices specific to writing and may elicit negative comments from students who do not understand what kinds of activities writing professionals consider most beneficial (56).
Other issues of concern include the use of online evaluations, which provide data that can be easily analyzed but result in lower participation rates (57). Moreover, the authors note, WPAs often distrust numerical data without the context provided by narrative responses, to which they may or may not have access (58).
Respondents also noted confusion or uncertainty about how an institution determines what constitutes a “good” or “poor” score. Many of these decisions are determined by comparing an individual teacher’s score to a departmental or university-wide average, with scores below the average signaling the need for intervention. The authors found evidence that even WPAs may fail to recognize that lower scores can be influenced not just by the grade the student expects but also by gender, ethnicity, and age, as well as whether the course is required (58-59).
Wooten et al. distinguish between “teaching effectiveness,” a basic measure of competence, and “teaching excellence,” practices and outcomes that can serve as benchmarks for other educators (60). They note that at many institutions, SETs appear to have little influence over recognition of excellence, for example through awards or commendations; classroom observations and teaching portfolios appear to be used more often for these determinations. SETs, in contrast, appear to have a more “punitive” function (61), used more often to single out teachers who purportedly fall short in effectiveness (60).
The authors note the vulnerability of contingent and non-tenure-track faculty to poorly implemented SETs and argue that a climate of fear occasioned by such practices can lead to “lenient grading and lowered demands” (61). They urge WPAs to consider the ethical implications of the use of SETs in their institutions.
Recommendations include “ensuring high response rates” through procedures and incentives; clarifying and standardizing designations of good and poor performance and ensuring transparency in the procedures for addressing low scores; and developing forms specific to local conditions and programs (61-62). Several of the recommendations concern increasing WPA authority over hiring and mentoring teachers, including tenure-track and tenured faculty. Wooten et al. recommend that all teachers assigned to writing courses administer writing-specific evaluations and be required to act on the information these forms provide; the annual-report process can allow tenured faculty to demonstrate their responsiveness (62).
The authors hope that these recommendations will lead to a ‘disciplinary discussion” among WPAs that will guide “the creation of locally appropriate evaluation forms that balance the needs of all stakeholders—students, teachers, and administrators” (63).