Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Evaluating Teaching: Listening to Students While Acknowledging Bias

Academic journal article Journal of Social Work Education

Evaluating Teaching: Listening to Students While Acknowledging Bias

Article excerpt

MUCH RESEARCH has been conducted over the past 50 years to examine student evaluations of teaching (SETs) as a method of assessing instructor performance. While some studies have found that using SETs is generally a valid method of assessment, others have found it to be flawed. In spite of these inconclusive results and concern about them shared by many in academia, SETs are still the most common measure of teaching effectiveness in use today in the United States (Cranton & Smith, 1990; Seldin & Associates, 1999). Since the early 1980s, very little research has been conducted on SETs in the field of social work. As with work done in other fields, results from the social work studies have been inconsistent.

Social work stresses the importance of client input into evaluative processes. When applied to social work education, it becomes clear that, from a social work perspective, students should be involved in some way in evaluating the courses they take. For this reason, as well as a dearth of valid or reliable alternatives (Howard, Conway, & Maxwell, 1985; Marsh & Roche, 1997), it is likely that the majority of social work programs will continue to use SETs as a primary source of information about the quality of instruction. Yet, throughout the literature, there are troubling signs of the possibility of serious bias in SETs. Given the weight currently placed on SET scores in personnel decisions (Lueck, Endres, & Kaplan, 1993; Whittington, 2001), it is crucial that as much be known as possible about validity and possible sources of bias.

The following study is part of a larger study conducted in the College of Public Programs at a large university, of which the school of social work is a part. The original study collected data from across the college (Campbell, Steiner, & Gerdes, 2005). The current study looks at data from within the school of social work to determine the effect of a number of variables on SET scores. This study contributes to the social work literature on SETs in a number of ways. Most importantly, it includes a thorough list of potentially related variables. Further, it examines the relationship between how instructors teach their courses, including specific pedagogical methods and technological supports that they employ, and SETs. We could find no attention paid to this relationship in the social work literature, and very little in the broader literature.

Literature Review

The primary concern about the use of SETs is the issue of whether or not they actually measure teaching effectiveness. This question is complicated by several factors. First, there is little agreement as to what constitutes effective teaching. One commonly agreed-on criterion for assessing teaching effectiveness is student learning. However, questions can be raised about what it is that students should be learning and how we measure that. Many examinations measure whether or not students are able to retain the content that was covered in a course. It is more difficult to assess whether the instructor was effective in helping students learn a number of skills or in developing personal characteristics necessary for effective social work practice. These include interviewing, assessment, critical thinking, and active listening skills, as well as the development of characteristics such as self-awareness, respect for diversity, empathy, and open-mindedness (Segal, Gerdes, & Steiner, 2004).

The second major concern entails bias. A number of variables unrelated to teaching skill have been shown to affect SETs in some studies (Cashin, 1995; Marsh & Roche, 1997; McKeachie, 1997). There are a number of characteristics of a course that an instructor generally cannot control that may interject bias. These include the time the course is taught, class size, whether a course is an elective or required, if the course has quantitative content, and level of the course (upper division/lower division and graduate/undergraduate). …

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