Monday, August 6, 2012

A pass-fail option — for profs?

Alison Byerly reports on a very intriguing way to encourage pedagogical innovation that has been adopted at Middlebury: an option for faculty to select courses to be evaluated by students on something akin to a 'pass/fail' option:

The new course evaluation policy is simple: all faculty members who have completed two full years of teaching will have the option of designating one course every two years as "course response form-optional." In such courses, the standard evaluations will be distributed to students, and collected, but returned to the instructor only (who may then stipulate whether or not they should be included in their central administrative files). Like the student who chooses to take a particular course pass/fail in order to mitigate his or her fear of exploring unknown territory, an instructor who is trying something new now has the option of teaching an "ungraded" course.
It's hard for me to see any downside to this policy. As Byerly observes, one obstacle to innovation and reform in the classroom is faculty fear of failure. If the tried and the true (or at least, the tried and not obviously deficient) are yielding adequate student evaluations, what incentive does a faculty member have to introduce innovations that may not work, that students might receive with confusion or hostility, etc.? Letting faculty consult the student feedback but allowing it not to count for official purposes makes failure safer, as well as conveying the message that faculty are also "lifelong learners" who can be trusted to innovate on their own terms. 

Can anyone see a reason to oppose this policy? (The commenters at Inside Higher Ed seem distracted by the validity of student evaluations, but as we've noted, that's a separate concern.)


  1. The downside, I imagine, would be that withholding your evaluations would be seen as an admission of inadequacy. Why did you teach three courses but only include evaluations for two of them, Professor X? Was there something disappointing about that course?

  2. As long as the problem that SMH raises does not actually arise. I think this is a great idea.

  3. Because of the problem SMH described, I'd amend the policy to _require_ faculty to do this once a (insert interval here), and to declare it before the beginning of class. That way it won't look "suspicious" to supervisors or peer evaluators when they see you're missing some evaluations--because everyone will be missing the same number.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!