Student evaluations crucial for hiring and training faculty members

Written by: 
Patrick Campbell

Each semester BYU-Hawaii students are invited to complete online class evaluations and leave comments for each of their professors, and BYUH Vice President of Academics John Bell said the school values and uses students' opinions for the hiring, retention, and classroom performance of faculty members.

Hiring Process

Each hire involves a long process of seeking, endorsements, and interviews with faculty members and a general authority.

Bell explained the hiring process is designed to find those with appropriate expertise and background, an ability to connect to their class, and a desire to fulfill the mission of BYUH, which includes bringing the Spirit into their classes.

The first part of the process consists of seeking applicants by “advertising on various websites associated with the church,” he said. “Applicants then fill out the online application and send in a curriculum vitae, which is essentially an academic resume.”

He pointed out the applicant is required to be endorsed by their bishop just like students do. A committee is then formed in the department to review the applications. This committee is responsible to select the few candidates who would potentially fill the job and seek student feedback.

“[Committee members] do solicit feedback from the students but it’s, not uniform. In the future we will work to make it more uniform. We want to make it more standard.

“Our departments are fairly small at this university, so a lot of times the committee is the same as the department or it might be part of the department in the larger ones.”

Selected applicants require the approval of the church headquarters to be invited to campus to be interviewed, said Bell. They then have the opportunity to be interviewed by Bell, President John Tanner, and members of the department to which they applied.

After an applicant has been selected for hiring, they then have one more interview. Bell said, “All prospective faculty members are interviewed by a general authority who is also looking for mission fit. ‘Is this someone we want to be teaching our young people?’

“We anticipate they will bring the Spirit into their classrooms, and some are more adept at that than others. But they all make an effort, and we try and encourage and help them develop that.”

Use of Student Evaluations

According to Bell, the official purpose for the end-of-semester student evaluations is to help the university evaluate the faculty members for continuing faculty status, which is similar to what other academic institutions call tenure. This process includes formal reviews by the university.

During the third and sixth years of employment, the university does a formal review of the faculty member’s activities. “It’s when we make the decision on whether that person will continue as a faculty member,” said Bell. The review consists of their teaching, scholarship, and service in committees.

“It’s just like the faculty hiring. We look at all the evidence, and student evaluations are one piece of evidence. We also look at what the faculty members have accomplished, the syllabi that have been written, and their exams and assignments. Other faculty members will observe their teaching. The students’ comments are definitely of use.”

The department chair, then the dean, and then a university committee review the entire body of evidence of their work. “It is then reviewed by me, and then I take all those reviews and put them together as a final recommendation to the president, and he makes the decision.”

As a former professor, Bell said the comments made in his students’ evaluations were useful to him. “It was always helpful, both comments which were positive and negative. I would change my practice every semester based on those comments, and faculty members do that.”

If a student has a specific concern over the way they were treated in a class or what they feel is an unfair grade, Bell said the evaluation is not the proper channel or venue to voice those concerns.

“There is a mechanism for academic grievances, and students can follow that process. The student evaluation is probably not a good tool for that because it won’t help the student out individually. The right way is to follow the academic grievance policy laid out on the school website.”

The academic grievance policy can be found in the university catalog online at https://catalog.byuh.edu/grievances.

Student/Faculty Conflict Resolution

Bell said evaluation comments are most valuable if they focus on what instructors can improve or what they thought worked well in the course. However, he advised students to bring up personal grievances with instructors directly whenever possible.

He said students and faculty can best resolve issues and conflicts by first working with each other on a personal level. “Any kind of grievance a student has about the class or the professor or the grading procedures or any kind of concern at all regarding academics, the wise thing is for the student to take it to the lowest level because that will always be the closest [to the situation]. Usually that means you take it to the professor directly.”

While he admits this may take some courage, he reminded students it’s also where they will most likely see the best results. Jordan Johns, a sophomore from Tennessee majoring in business management, said, “I’ve had to go talk to professors about grades I had questions about when I thought I had been graded unfairly. It’s always worth it to go straight to them. Most professors are more than happy to sit down and have a discussion, especially when they see you care.”

If a direct attempt at reconciliation is not successful, Bell said, “They should go to the chair and then to the dean. This is the basic academic grievance chain.”

He explained university personnel might want to share some information with students in some situations; however, it might not be feasible, possible, ethical or appropriate for them to do so.

“While this may seem disingenuous,” he said, “the main purpose for confidentiality is to avoid hurting people… It’s important to us to find ways to deal with matters appropriately and with the appropriate amount of confidentiality to avoid injury.

“Sometimes you see situations where publicly people are treated very badly, and even if there are sound reasons for treating a person badly it doesn’t necessarily justify the bad treatment.

“If there are concerns raised, we try and follow the scriptural counsel that you can find in the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants, to keep matters to as few of a number of people as possible.”

Faculty Training (New Teaching Center)

One tool the school is providing to help faculty respond to student feedback is the newly reorganized Center for Learning and Teaching. “The Center for Learning and Teaching focuses especially on new faculty members and is developing curriculum to assist those faculty members in honing their skills,” said Bell. 

Dr. Jared Marcum, director of the center, said their primary goal is to “coach and help faculty members develop their teaching abilities working with a group of students who differ very much in their language background.”

Because most professors teach students who are not native English speakers and come from different language areas, EIL Associate Professor Mark Wolfersberger said, “It’s important the faculty teach the language of their subject because the EIL program is not designed to teach the language of every subject on campus. Otherwise, students would spend four years in EIL!”

Wolfersberger advised students experiencing language or cultural barriers to “find the courage to talk to [their] professors. The professors at BYUH are quite unique. They’re at BYUH because they love the students here, who come from many different countries throughout the world.

“The professors want to help, but they do not always know when an individual is struggling. So if you can find the courage to talk to your professor, you will help your professor do what he or she loves, which is to help you.”

Dr. Rowena P. Reid, who will be one of the four instructors, said she is unsure what the effects of the class will be since her first class of faculty members will be in the fall, but she does have a class set up she believes will be helpful to the class members.

“A lot of our professors have amazing skills, but they’ve never been in front of a classroom,” said Reid.

In order to better assist students of other languages, Wolfersberger gave several suggestions to professors.

·      Write and briefly explain a few vocabulary words on the board that will be used in class that day.

·      Have students explain concepts to each other after instruction.

·      Have students work in groups to allow more time for students to discuss.

·      Give writing assignments where quality of the English is part of the grade.

·      Give quizzes on the reading.

For professors who are also concerned about balancing students from a multitude of cultural backgrounds, he said, “The answer is to facilitate cross-cultural communication between students.”

In order for professors to initiate cross-cultural communication Wolfersberger gave these suggestions:

·      Work in groups and assign a mix of students to each group.

·      Encourage responses from different cultural backgrounds 

·      Invite students to share how an idea can be viewed differently in different languages or cultures.

Date Published: 
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, September 16, 2017