One of the spin-offs from the some of the recent discussions about Bernard Moore was a “debate” about how good or bad he was as a teacher. One student said that he was terrific, several others were quite critical. Without trying to rehash Mr. Moore’s specific talents, I thought the debate raised an interesting question.

Most (all?) of us believe that one of the qualities that makes Williams a great educational institution and distinct from major research universities like Stanford, Cornell, or Yale, is the fact that the professors are expected to and do teach undergraduates. This fact is assumed to attract professors to Williams who are interested in teaching (as opposed to simply being interested in research) and, hopefully, are good at it (whatever that means). During the evaluation process for professors, I understand that teaching ability is an important factor.

But how can we measure or evaluate teaching ability? This, of course, is a problem at all educational levels. At the primary and secondary school level, we can evaluate teachers in part by how much their students learn, typically measured through testing. Good teachers should teach their students more than bad teachers. Is anything similar done at the college level? If so, I am not aware of it.

I think teaching ability is largely measured by student surveys, supplemented by occasional observations. I think its unfortunate, if true, that only the numeric scores from those surveys are shared with the professor’s department, and that student comments are not shared with the department. I think these comments, when viewed as a whole could be very useful. Are the comments only made available to the professor in question? If so, why would that be?

If teaching evaluations are based primarily (almost exclusively) on numerical aggregations of student survey data, I think that is a little troubling, simply because that process is so subjective and subject to the vagaries of sample size, who shows up/bothers to fill out the surveys, etc. I am of the view that great teaching is like obscenity (i.e. you know it when you see it), but is there a good (better?) way of determining who good teachers are?

Input from the many academics here at EphBlog would be appreciated.

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