How Kansas University students rate their instructors on end-of-course surveys can affect whether faculty receive raises, promotions and tenure status.
It's a fact that's hard for many faculty to forget as they teach.
"I know I'm a good teacher, but I still worry," said Lisa Wolf-Wendel, KU associate professor of teaching and leadership."I still want them to like me. It still matters in my evaluation and in my raises."
A task force this year is charged with reviewing how KU evaluates teaching and exploring ways that measurements of student learning could be added to the mix.
Ruth Ann Atchley, associate professor of psychology and president of KU's Faculty Senate, said the task force plans to study the components of good teaching, determine goals and expectations for being a good instructor, look at other schools and their practices, and find ways to improve KU's system.
The task force has yet to meet, but the work promises to be complex as faculty try to find ways to evaluate teaching in an era of increased pressure for accountability in higher education.
"It is a complex task," said Susan Twombly, professor of teaching and leadership and a task force member.
There are some complaints about the current system, which relies heavily on end-of-course anonymous student surveys. Surveys aren't the only tools: Peer evaluations, course syllabi and other documents are taken into account. But many say the surveys are key.
"It's sort of a primary entry point through which you look at teaching," Wolf-Wendel said. "If you see a problem there, then you investigate further."
In the surveys, the students rate their instructor on a scale of 1 to 5, responding to such questions as "Does the teacher have command of the subject?" and "Is the teacher fair?"
And there are questions such as "Was the instructor dry and humorless?" and "Did the teacher seem hostile toward students?" There's also a spot for general comments.
But two key questions often carry a lot of weight.
The surveys ask, "Is the teacher effective overall?" and "Overall, are the course goals and objectives met?"
The answers to those two questions are synthesized into two scores that faculty report when evaluated.
The scores can become a ranking of sorts, with those getting the higher scores considered to be better teachers than those with lower scores, Wolf-Wendel said.
"When it all gets distilled down to the answers of two questions, that's frustrating," Atchley said.
And what if the surveys turn teaching into a popularity contest, with the nicest professors scoring the high marks? Or what if faculty feel pressured to be "cool" or even easy to win over students?
"Quite honestly, it can and I imagine it does change the way you interact with students," Atchley said.
In the section where students can write comments and suggestions, some students may leave those areas blank or offer comments that aren't very constructive.
"You might get a comment on 'I don't like the kind of clothes you wear,'" Atchley said.
Melissa Horen, student body vice president, said the surveys are important. But she suggested that subtle changes might make them more effective, such as distributing them at the start of class rather than the end so students take the time to complete them or asking specific questions to receive more constructive comments.
"I really want students' opinion to be heard by faculty," she said.
Accountability is a growing buzzword in higher education. A recent report by the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education called for greater transparency and accountability in higher education and pressed for colleges and universities to demonstrate how students progress in their college years.
The KU task force will explore ways to use student outcomes for evaluations, said Dan Bernstein, director of KU's Center for Teaching Excellence and head of the task force.
But this area, too, is complex, and some resist the idea of moving toward a No Child Left Behind-type of system.
"I'm certainly not in favor of the No Child Left Behind approach - that I should be judged solely on the accomplishments of my students," Twombly said.
But Twombly said faculty and departments have a responsibility to assess whether students meet goals, and current tests and assignments can be used as monitors of student progress.
"If we don't take some steps to be accountable to ourselves, I'm somewhat concerned that the government will try doing it," she said.
Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty support, agreed that measuring student outcomes can be challenging. To start, student learning requires not only good teachers, but students ready and willing to learn.
"You can't make someone learn," Hummert said. "You can set up a situation that is conducive to learning, but learning is work. It's not just the faculty members' responsibility there."
Victoria Clegg, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Kansas State University, said some schools are turning to teaching portfolios that include multiple documents to provide more well-rounded views of instructors' work.
But she said what might work for one discipline might not work in another.
"You have to be open to a variety of approaches being used for assessment," she said.