Documenting and Improving Teaching

An Informal Summary of University Policies, Procedures, and Resources for Undergraduate Instruction

OID: Faculty Consultation


Documenting and Improving Teaching

Documenting Teaching Using a Teaching Dossier or Portfolio

At a research university such as UCLA, faculty are generally more aware of colleagues’ research than their teaching. Further, getting information about colleagues’ teaching is more difficult than getting information about their research. There are usually a variety of concrete materials to use in evaluating research, including articles, books, artistic contributions, expert testimony, and various measures of professional recognition. Because teaching is usually a transaction between a single faculty member and one or more students, colleagues’ knowledge of this transaction is necessarily limited. The teaching dossier or portfolio, analogous to an art portfolio, has been proposed as one solution to the issue of documenting effective teaching.

Such a portfolio usually contains a thoughtful and thorough narrative supported by appendices of teaching materials. Portfolios are often an essential part of the personnel decision-making process for instructors. Also, a good self-review narrative can be very useful for improving one’s teaching, for winning a teaching award and for applying for future positions. As was stated earlier, documenting teaching effectiveness often leads to teaching improvement, and even reward.
 

Possible contents of a teaching portfolio

Seldin (1991) lists the kinds of materials that one might include in a teaching portfolio. The specific items selected will depend on an instructor’s particular teaching assignment and activities. However, the real secret of assembling a successful portfolio relies on knowing whom to ask for what. Some of his ideas for sources of data are given below. The Office of Instructional Development would like to thank CELT (The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching) at The Pennsylvania State University for permission to adapt their “Creating a Teaching Portfolio” guide for the UCLA context in this section.

Portfolio Sources

Data from oneself

Self-analysis and self-reflection are far too often overlooked in the assessment of teaching and learning, yet they are central not only to the processes of assessing teaching, but also of improving it. Thus they are an essential part of any teaching portfolio.

Faculty members can provide their own perspective on virtually every aspect of instruction. Self-reports should be primarily descriptive as opposed to evaluative—what were you trying to do, why, how, and what was the result? Consequently, these documents will more easily reflect development than those from other sources. Self-reports should also be compared with data from other sources. Because feedback that provides new information is most likely to produce change, it is by virtue of such comparisons that personal growth and improvement occur. Data from oneself might include:
 

  • list of courses taught, with brief descriptions of course content, teaching responsibilities, and student information

  • statement of philosophy of teaching and factors that have influenced that philosophy

  • examples of course material prepared and any subsequent modifications that were made to accommodate unanticipated student needs

  • a sample syllabus or lesson plan

  • record of teaching discoveries and subsequent changes made to courses regularly taught

  • description of efforts to improve teaching (e.g., participating in seminars and workshops, reading journals on teaching, reviewing new teaching materials for possible application, pursuing a line of research that contributes directly to teaching, using instructional development services, and contributing to a professional journal of teaching in your discipline)

  • evidence of reputation as a skilled teacher, such as awards, invitations to speak, and interviews

  • personal reflections on your growth and change as a teacher (including awards won and indicating future teaching promise)

Data from others

Obviously, different people can provide different kinds of information about an instructor’s teaching. For example, it is probably counterproductive and inappropriate to ask students about the breadth and completeness of an instructor’s content knowledge since, from their point of view, such expertise should be a given. The more obvious and appropriate judges of this information would be department colleagues. Likewise, such colleagues are usually not good judges of whether an individual is prepared for class, arrives on time, or is available for office hours. Clearly, getting the right kinds of input from each group of individuals is what will give a portfolio its strength and depth.

Students

As the immediate beneficiaries of teaching, students are in an ideal position to report and comment on a number of variables, such as which instructional strategies helped them learn the most and whether the instructor came prepared to class, was available during office hours, or provided useful comments on papers. Other data that only students can report involve any change in their level of interest as a result of taking the course, how much the course challenged them, and whether they felt comfortable asking questions. The most common ways of obtaining student feedback about these aspects of teaching include:

  • interviews with students after they have completed the course

  • informal (and perhaps unsolicited) feedback, such as letters or notes from students

  • systematic summaries of student course evaluations—both open-ended and restricted choice ratings

  • honors received from students, such as winning a Distinguished Teaching Award.

Other materials often referred to in the literature on teaching portfolios are the “products of good teaching.” In a sense, these are really a subspecies of the broader category "data from students" and might include:

  • examples of the instructor’s comments on student papers, tests, and assignments

  • pre- and post-course examples of students' work, such as writing samples, laboratory workbooks or logs, creative work, and projects or fieldwork reports

  • testimonials of the effect of the course on future studies, career choice, employment, or subsequent enjoyment of the subject

Colleagues

Colleagues within the department/school are best suited to make judgments about course content and objectives, the instructor’s collegiality, and student preparedness for subsequent courses. Departmental/school colleagues can provide analyses and testimonials that serve as a measure of:

  • mastery of course content

  • ability to convey course content and objectives

  • suitability of specific teaching methods and assessment procedures for achieving course objectives

  • commitment to teaching as evidenced by expressed concern for student learning

  • commitment to and support of departmental/school instructional efforts

  • ability to work with others on instructional issues

  • reports from classroom observations

  • statements from those who teach courses for which the instructor's course is a prerequisite

  • evidence of contributions to course development, improvement, and innovation

Administrators

The most significant administrators who may not necessarily be included in the previous category are the department chair and the school or divisional dean. In their supervisory capacity, these administrators are generally well suited to make summary statements about overall performance over time. In doing so, they can help those who will read and interpret the portfolio by organizing and assimilating all the other information from various sources. It is also appropriate that these individuals draw attention to special recognition for teaching such as a university-wide or department/school teaching award, such as the university Distinguished Teaching Award.

Arrangement and presentation of portfolio components

An instructor's teaching portfolio is, and indeed should be, highly personal. There is, therefore, no specifically recognized format. In the most general sense, such a portfolio is likely to contain a short reflective narrative followed by an appendix of supporting documentation. Beyond this, selection and arrangement should be done so as to best reflect the argument you wish to make (for example, that one should be selected for the job, or be given departmental funding to teach a course).

Reflective narrative

This is a key piece of any portfolio. It includes the major claims an instructor wishes to make about their teaching, and indicates how these claims support their case. It is always advisable to use specific examples which narrate these claims and which give them flavor. For this one can draw on the previous section, Data from Oneself.

Supporting materials/data/documents

These elements are used to illustrate the claims and examples in the reflective narrative, and hence to support the overall argument. For this one can draw mostly, though not exclusively, on the prior section, Data from Others. One might include, for example, a table of standardized student evaluations, as well as a sample lesson plan or syllabus. Supporting materials are most conveniently located in appendices. They need to be carefully selected so as to not be too lengthy (just pick the clearest example to support the point), and should be arranged and labeled for the convenience of the reader. Points made in the narrative should be referenced to specific pages or parts of the appendices if at all possible.

Getting feedback as part of the process

Once a portfolio outline is complete, and before the final draft is written, it is always a good idea to check it for balance. In particular, it is important to make sure that the "data from others" comes from multiple sources (students as well as colleagues).

In addition to making a strong case for an applicant, a portfolio should reflect the instructor as a person. As is the case for teaching in general, the best portfolios are those that are constantly revised and updated. Input from colleagues and friends can be invaluable in this process.

Developing a comprehensive departmental system of evaluation

The routine use of all of the evaluation methods listed is not recommended. Rather, it is suggested that departments develop comprehensive systems which use these different teaching evaluation methods selectively and appropriately to assess the quality of instruction and to provide a valid picture of an individual’s teaching. The basic elements of a comprehensive system are:

Instructor consent

Teaching evaluations should only be done with knowledge and consent of the instructor.

Teaching committee

It is recommended that departments, when possible, establish teaching committees to monitor the quality of instruction and conduct teaching evaluations.

Teaching files

In order to develop a continuous record of evaluation, it is recommended that all departments maintain teaching files for all faculty. Systematic student ratings, course materials, and other information relating to teaching would be placed in the file on an ongoing basis. Such materials can then be used by the faculty member or department to construct a teaching dossier, or portfolio whenever one is needed.

Regular evaluations

In many departments, end-of-course student ratings and faculty self-reviews are sufficient for regular evaluation.

Special evaluations

It is not necessary to evaluate in great detail all courses taught by all faculty every quarter. Extensive evaluations using classroom visits or interviews with students should be reserved for instructors who request additional evaluation in order to improve his/her teaching, or when a department has questions about the quality of teaching for critical personnel decisions. Extensive evaluation is also appropriate for new course development or at times of major curriculum reorganization or development.

Different department systems

Teaching assignments vary within and between departments, and it is expected that departments will develop their own systems which emphasize different evaluation methods. The following section contains an example of a particular departmental evaluation system.

Information for students

Certain information from the comprehensive evaluation system can be useful for students in program planning and course selection. Information about the course organization, reading, grading and test procedures, previous student evaluations and faculty comments about their course might be provided to students with the instructor’s consent.

A comprehensive system of teaching evaluation will require more time and effort than our current methods, but the additional effort to develop a credible and equitable system is well worth it. Many faculty believe that such decisions warrant a comparable commitment of time. More importantly, given the potential impact on the faculty member’s professional career, especially with the increased attention given to university instruction and its outcomes, evaluation of teaching effectiveness merits a serious commitment from everyone involved to provide an accurate and fair assessment. Perhaps most importantly, the process helps everyone on the faculty to become more effective teachers.

Both departmental instructional programs and faculty teaching assignments vary widely. A single fixed set of rules and procedures for evaluation cannot meet the needs of all departments. However, the principles outlined in table 1.3 should provide a useful framework on which departments can build their own evaluation program.
 

An example of a departmental system

Department X is a moderate sized department (35 FTE) with large undergraduate and graduate programs. Because there are many TA-run discussion sections in the large lecture and lab courses, graduate teaching assistants are an important part of the instructional effort. The department has a Teaching Committee to monitor the evaluation system and to advise faculty on teaching.
 

Instructor teaching files

Files are maintained for all faculty by the staff person who handles academic personnel. Faculty are asked to put copies of all syllabi, other instructional materials, evaluations, and the like, in their teaching file. Faculty are required to get systematic student ratings for all of their courses using a standard form for the evaluation.

Senior and alumni surveys

As part of periodic Academic Senate Reviews, the department has surveyed seniors and alumni about both the program and the quality of faculty instruction. The results for all faculty are summarized and placed in the teaching files.

Faculty portfolio or dossier preparation

Faculty under consideration for merit increases or promotion are asked to prepare a reflective teaching narrative. The narrative includes a self-appraisal in which faculty are asked for self-ratings and comments on student ratings, as well as a teaching activities report in a standard format. Faculty have access to all materials in their teaching file when preparing their dossier and should carefully select appropriate samples for the appendices to their narrative.

Special review reports

Faculty at critical career points: tenure decisions, full professor, professor VI, and also for some accelerated advancements, receive a more careful review using group interviews with students, classroom visits, solicited letters from alumni, or other methods depending on what is most appropriate for the teaching responsibilities of the faculty member under consideration. When possible, these special procedures are carried over the year or so preceding the review for advancement.

Teaching/learning consultation

Faculty may request special reviews for teaching improvement purposes at any time. Also, the department may suggest to some faculty, based on their departmental review, that they should obtain diagnostic appraisal and assistance using the various programs offered by the department, or the campus Faculty Consultation Program.

Departmental committees

The department review procedure for advancement use an ad-hoc subcommittee. All of the material collected for teaching, research, and service is evaluated by this committee and a report and recommendation is made to the full department which votes on the appointment.

Teaching Colloquium

All candidates for departmental hiring are required to give a teaching colloquium as part of the interview process. Students, graduates and faculty are invited to attend and vote on the candidate’s performance.

 

Suggested readings

Arreola, R. (2000). Developing a comprehensive faculty evaluation system: A handbook for college faculty and administrators on designing and operating a comprehensive faculty evaluation system. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Edgerton, R., Hutchings, P., & Quinlan, K. (1991). The teaching portfolio: capturing the scholarship in teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Seldin, Peter. (1991). The teaching portfolio: A practical guide to improved performance and promotion/tenure decisions. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Seldin, P. (1993). Successful use of teaching portfolios. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Seldin, P. & Associates. (1999). Changing practices in evaluation teaching: A practical guide to improved faculty performance and promotion/tenure decisions. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

Shore, B.M., Foster, S.F., Knapper, C.K., Nadeau, G.G., Neill, N. & Sim, V.W. (1986). The teaching dossier: A guide to its preparation and use. Ottawa, ON: The Canadian Association of University Teachers.