Faculty Affairs looking at alternatives to OMETs


The University Senate’s Faculty Affairs committee has begun collecting data on how particular schools and departments undertake teaching evaluations, with an eye toward suggesting how Pitt might move beyond the OMETs — the student evaluation form used by Pitt’s Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching.

At its March 16 meeting, committee co-chair Lorraine Denman (faculty member in the Dietrich School’s Department of French and Italian) noted that her school had proposed alternatives when OMETs are not possible — from “documentation of efforts to improve teaching” to “documentation of out-of-the-classroom teaching and student mentoring” — but this engendered “a lot of questions. How do we proceed?”

“I don’t think this has to happen every year,” she said of evaluations. “At some point, it gets less effective to demonstrate your effectiveness every year.

“In every department, not everyone is an expert in pedagogy and teaching,” she added. Perhaps evaluations should be conducted by those faculty with training in best practices “who are qualified enough to do those kinds of reviews.”

However, she cautioned: “We also have to think of our own biases,” as one colleague may be rooting for another to succeed, or expect reciprocal support in their future reviews, or have a prejudice toward certain teaching styles or personalities (as has been demonstrated among students). Denman suggested the group doing the reviews might come from outside each faculty member’s department — perhaps from the University Center for Teaching and Learning.

Other committee members reported that their departments or schools had evaluation committees who looked at not only teaching but also, on a regular schedule, core-course content.

Patrick Loughlin, faculty member in the Swanson School of Engineering’s bioengineering department, recalled that OMETs at first were only shared with instructors. “It is not, in my opinion, an assessment of effective teaching,” he said of this student form. Nor would in-class observation alone allow a full assessment of a teacher’s effectiveness, he said. The ideal, but impractical, method of assessment would be to track down alumni five to 10 years later and ask them about a class’s impact.

He also pointed out that students undertake a significant part of their learning on their own, while doing homework, and that measuring true effectiveness would require assessing the impact of one-on-one consultations with professors during office hours.

One of the most impressive professors he knows, Loughlin added, “all he needs is a chalkboard and chalk,” given his deep subject knowledge and teaching prowess.

OMETs are likely here to stay, he admitted: “It’s an easy piece of data ... and I do think student feedback is important … but it’s not the only important piece of how you are as a teaching professor.” He said he has actually collected the answers to one OMET question — What recommendation do you offer for success in this class? — and shares them anonymously with the next class, since it gives useful advice.

“We should keep doing the OMETs,” he said. “We should take advantage of the people in the University Center for Teaching and Learning. But maybe we should stop saying we are measuring teaching effectiveness.”

“It is the efficacy of delivering the material” that Pitt is measuring at the end of each semester, Denman said. She hoped the committee would collect “ways we can equitably support varied ways of evaluation of teaching that doesn’t put more work or pressure on faculty.”

Modification of G grades

Committee members also had several questions about the modification of the G grade, announced earlier to students by Joseph J. McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

The announcement told students: “…we will be modifying the ‘G grade’ (incomplete for extenuating circumstances) process to facilitate taking a bit more time to complete a course, if needed. This new process will allow a ‘fallback grade’ to be recorded in cases where a student has done enough to achieve a passing grade in a course but would like more time to finish some well-defined final assignments. As with all G grades, you will need to work out those details with your instructor.”

Faculty Affairs committee members questioned how, for instance, a fall semester instructor would know whether a student in their class had completed the work to turn a G grade into a passing grade, and thus qualified for the fall class.

McCarthy explained, after the meeting: “Students will be able to enroll for fall follow-on courses as early as (this) week despite not having any grades from prerequisite courses that they are currently taking this term. Nothing that we are implementing with respect to G grades changes this typical dynamic. Since G grades are considered to be ‘ongoing,’ they would be treated identically to my example of current classes. In both instances, we simply need to re-evaluate student prerequisites during add/drop, as we always have done (with G grades as well as other ‘current pursuit’ courses).”

Hearing that committee members also were concerned with how, when and by whom the fallback grades would be recorded — especially if faculty leave or are uncertain about whether they will have a contract for the next semester – McCarthy said: “We have not yet established the process to be used for issuing a fallback grade. [But] … the grade would be noted at the same time as the G (and all other) grades. So, there should be no impact on faculty that are on contract or that leave the University. We will communicate the process closer to the end of the semester.”

He added that his office wished to dispel another common concern about the G grade: “The critical point to make is that we are not modifying the rationale for awarding a G grade, the requirements for faculty with respect to accommodating/completing G grades, nor the expiration date of G grades that are awarded. In fact, the only thing that we are changing is allowing faculty to have the option of noting — at the time that they award the G grade — the grade to which an expired G grade should revert. That is, currently, all expired G grades revert to an NG grade, but if a faculty member were to note a 'fallback grade' then expired G grades will revert to the identified fallback grade instead.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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