How to Reward Good Teaching?

Texas A&M announced that it will pay bonuses of $10,000 for good student evaluations.  Fred Moss of SMU called this a bad idea in an email to the AALS Teaching Methods Section.  He fears a “‘race to the bottom,’ with professors vying with each other to be the easiest, least demanding, spoon-feeders amongst their peers.”

I don’t know whether or not I should share Fred’s concerns.  I assume that Texas A&M considered this possibility before implementing the incentive plan.  It seems to me that a lot will depend on the content of the student evaluation forms. 

Fred’s comments, however, do raise the important question of  how law schools should encourage good teaching.  For too long, law professors have been rewarded primarily on the basis of their scholarship with little more than lip service given to the quality of their teaching.  Consequentially, many law teachers have not strived to be excellent teachers.

I think we all agree that law schools should encourage their faculties to strive to be excellent teachers.  If so, what can law schools do to provide encouragement?  If not through bonuses based on student evaluations, then how?

I look forward to reading your responses.


6 Responses

  1. To me, the questions are (1) whether student evaluations are a reliable way to evaluate teaching outomes–what the students learned., and (2) whether there are better ways to evaluate teaching outcomes.

  2. Giving 10K for good student evaluations begs two fundamental questions: 1. what skills/qualities/actions make one an excellent teacher; 2. how do we measure those particular skills/qualities/actions. Going directly to student evaluations skips those steps. Also, it is problematic because what students believe is good teaching may not correspond to what actually constitutes good teaching. For example, all the literature suggests that students are best served by numerous evaluations throughout the semester. Doing this obviously takes faculty time and energy. And yet, studies have indicated that law faculty who give grades during the semester get lower student evaluations than when they don’t grade.

    So, step one: what makes one an excellent teacher? While it is true that many socratic teachers are wonderful, I think that teachers who simply repeat what they have been doing for 10 years, even if it’s really good, are not excellent teachers b/c excellent teachers always strive to do something better. Thus, deans could actually look at what the law faculty member is doing in terms of the work he/she is putting into his/her course in terms of going beyond what he/she usually does. For example, is the faculty member giving students in a large section course regular and meaningful feedback, is the faculty member innovating to include values and skiills training where possible, is the faculty member available to meet with students (and does he/she do this) on a regular basis? Is the faculty member incorporating particular aspects of Best Practices that the individual school values? Certainly, student evaluations can be part of that process, but only if they are designed to actually capture the skills/qualities/other criterion that schools consider critical pieces of excellent teaching. In sum, I think that if deans and faculty members really care about this, they have to first identify the characteristics that they believe comprise excellent teaching, then the yardsticks to measure those characteristics. This is not a place where a short-cut to the end game makes any sense.

    Finally, I think that rewards don’t have to be cash. For example, excellent teachers could be given a course release or, some schools where committee work is actually more onerous and time-consuming that teaching – committee release .

  3. Thanks for the great question, Roy, and the interesting comments, Gary & Andi. Additional thoughts

    1) In general, how do we best motivate people ? Research suggests that internal motivation, i.e. doing things for the love of it, works better than external motivation, i.e. rewards and punishments. So my own preference for encouraging good teaching: create an environment that encourages us to talk about the joys and challenges of teaching and to support each other as we try to improve.

    2) At the same time, many people enjoy both teaching and scholarship and are internally motivated to do both. Rewarding one rather than the other will make a big difference at the margin in where folks spend their energy. So we have to think carefully about how to balance the external rewards for teaching and scholarship.

    3) As Andi notes, if we’re trying to validate time spent on teaching and encourage better teaching, how do we identify good teaching?

    a) In many institutions, teaching evaluations are one of the few metrics available. They can be more comfortable for us to use than peer institutions because they seem more “objective.” And they allow us to avoid judging our peers. A former dean once observed, “I’ve never seen a negative peer evaluation of faculty at my institution.”

    b) Re: Gary’s question whether student evaluations are a good way of measuring learning outcomes.
    — the questions aren’t necessarily designed to do that
    — race and gender can factor into evaluations in problematic ways. (If you don’t believe me, read Pamela Smith’s article at 6 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 53)
    — as law school tuition rises, students may adopt a consumerist, “teach me, I’m entitled” approach to law school that penalizes teachers who ask more of them or are otherwise outside the norm
    — similarly, students sometimes respond to the stresses of law school by rewarding faculty who teach them neatly packaged, black-letter law or otherwise make few demands on them
    — true or not, faculty often believe that students reward the easiest graders and least demanding teachers
    — I’ve had many students tell me “I learned more from Prof. X about how to read a case than from anyone else in law school”. That doesn’t translate into top eval’s for Prof. X. I bet many of us have such stories.

    I’m not sure where that leaves us. One idea:to rethink the questions we ask on student evaluations. Maybe we can teach students to be more thoughtful about what they’re looking for if we are more thoughtful about what we’re looking for.

  4. I’ve argued elsewhere ( see that the issue really should be framed not in terms of teaching evaluations but rather in terms of learning evaluation. I’m not much concerned about how a faculty member succeeds in obtaining good results; I’m worried about the outcomes. Consequently, while I applaud Texas A&M’s attempt to reward good teaching, I disagree with its approach. Student evaluations, I believe, really assess teaching inputs, not outputs. (I appreciate that one could argue otherwise.) I would be much more supportive of rewards for effective teaching measured by outputs. How to get at measuring outputs is admittedly difficult. We professors are pretty good at shooting down any proposal for measuring effectiveness. Maybe the route to the solution is not to be found by a top-down prescriptive approach. I think we might be better served by placing the burden on professors to demonstrate they are effective. I am confident that good minds, working hard to earn tenure, salary increases and prestige points, will devise ways to demonstrate their effectiveness. Such a bottom-up approach might lead to experimentation and much less nay-saying. Even as I write this, I find myself musing on just how I would demonstrate that I am being effective as a teacher. Hmm.

  5. I agree with Dennis that we should be more concerned with evaluating learning outputs than inputs. And I like his idea of puting the burden on law teachers to demonstrate that they are effective. Unfortunately, the fact that law schools have given little attention to measuring teaching effectiveness is further evidence of the low value placed on educating students in most law schools in the United States. Thankfully, there are signs that this is changing.

    I also believe there is value in evaluating inputs as well as outputs. Like it or not, student evaluations are likely to be around for a long time. So, it is important that student evaluation forms be well designed and require students to comment on those aspects of teaching that are reasonably likely to be related to effectiveness. Andi’s comment suggests some topics that should be included. Are these questions asked on your student evaluation forms? Does anyone use student evaluation forms that have been vetted by teaching and learning experts?

    I have a concern about one of Andi’s proposed questions: Is the faculty member available to meet with students (and does he/she do this) on a regular basis? It seems to me that the most effective teachers will have fewer students in their offices asking for clarification about what happened in class. And I suspect that most students who show up in law professors’ offices are there to discuss issues that have nothing to do with instructional issues. While I believe it is important for law professors to counsel and advise students on a broad range of issues, I simply wanted to point out that having a line of students outside your office may reflect positively on your value to the institurion, it is not necessarily an indication of teaching effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

  6. other rewards of teaching

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