How the Best Teachers Evaluate Their Students and Themselves, Matters

student balancing books
“Assessment and evaluation,” a phrase that too often connotes long hours spent grading exams and quick perusals of student evaluation of teaching reports. Ken Bain and his research colleagues found that outstanding teachers use assessment and evaluation data to understand how to help students develop the knowledge and skills identified in course outcomes. Such an approach requires that we ask important questions about assessment and evaluation.

Assessment: Bain (2004) proposed asking the following question about assessment: What kind of intellectual and personal development do I want my students to enjoy in this class, and what evidence might I collect about the nature and progress of their development? (pp. 152-153). This question reframes the purpose of assessment as an on-going activity that views learning as a developmental process rather than finite knowledge acquisition. In this view, every assignment, classroom discussion, or piece of student writing, whether graded or not, is an assessment. Sounds great; how can we make it work? Bain suggested rethinking how assessments are used. Exam results for example may be considered evidence of the nature and progress of each student’s development, and the exemplary teachers Bain observed considered exams as extensions of the kind of work students are already doing in class. For example, if time in class is spent on developing problem-solving skills, exams that require students to apply those skills to unfamiliar situations will provide useful assessment data on student mastery. Conversely, if time in class is spent on developing basic knowledge and comprehension and exams require students to problem-solve, the assessment lacks a level of validity and so the data is less useful.

Evaluation: If assessment is an ongoing process designed to inquire, demonstrate, and improve learning, evaluation is a summative process designed to gauge the quality of that learning. When considering course evaluations, often referred to as student evaluation of teaching, Bain (2004) asked the following question: Does (my) teaching help and encourage students to learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial and positive difference in the way they think, act, or feel…? (p. 164). One professor answered the question this way: “High ratings from students indicate success only if I am satisfied with the quality of what I’m asking the do intellectually, and that is reflected not in the ratings but in my syllabus, assignments, and the ways I grade their work. Low ratings, on the other hand, usually tell me I’ve failed to reach my students” (Bain, 2004, p. 166). To answer Bain’s evaluation question, one can review the alignment between course outcomes and objectives and course assignments, activities, and exams. An analysis of instructional methods and the standards used to assess student work can also be a personal measure of quality teaching. In the end, Bain (2004) reminded his readers that “excellent teachers develop their abilities through constant self-evaluation, reflection, and the willingness to change” (p. 166).

We trust our musings on “What the Best College Teachers Do” has been helpful, challenging, and encouraging. The notion that good teachers are “born that way” and there is little anyone can do to improve their skill is demonstrably untrue. Good teaching is work. Good teaching requires reflection, determination, willingness to take a risk, and hard-headed commitment to student learning because “teaching occurs only when learning takes place” (Bain, 2004, p. 173).

Good summer to all…we’ll be back in September!

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. (1st ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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