Excellence in Teaching Initiative Questions and Answers

Click on each question for more information:

What is the USC Excellence in Teaching Initiative?

A major part of the initiative includes a new teaching model that has three levels:  University, school, and​faculty. (​See memo to faculty)

  1. The university level includes a university-wide definition of excellence in teaching, investment in training and resources for teaching development, peer-review tools and training, and consultation for alignment of reward structure with definition, development, and evaluation. The development, evaluation, and reward resources developed by CET were intended to assist faculty and schools, but schools may wish to develop their own.
  2. The school level will involve a faculty-led process to develop school-based customized plans to promote teaching excellence. This will include a school-based definition that reflects pedagogical best practices within the discipline, development opportunities, peer-review tools and processes–in addition to other discipline-endorsed evaluation methods, and a revised incentive structure that is sufficiently rewarding to motivate faculty to invest in teaching development, peer-review, and performance. Faculty will determine how each of these elements will play out.
  3. The faculty level will involve individual or groups of faculty reflecting on their own teaching goals, and identifying resources and opportunities to engage in the new model.

Other elements of the initiative include: first-year student experience (life skills course, support for faculty teaching high impact first year courses), residential education, undergraduate advising, TA support and training, future faculty teaching preparation, and pathways to interdisciplinary teaching. (See memo.)

Where did the new teaching model come from?

The Academic Senate convened a Faculty Evaluation Task Force in 2013. The resulting white paper was reviewed by the full Academic Senate in December, 2013. The final paper was sent to the Provost’s office in February, 2014. Teaching is covered on pages 3 and 4.

The Provost convened a 2016 Task Force on Teaching Effectiveness populated by faculty from across schools and disciplines to consider ways to improve and assess teaching effectiveness. A report was submitted that included recommendations for promoting and assessing teaching effectiveness.

The Senate/Provost Committee on Teaching and Academic Programs built on those recommendations, and developed a set of recommendations for teaching excellence at USC. This report was presented to the Academic Senate in May 2017, and submitted to the Provost.

Recently, the Provost convened a second Task Force on Teaching Excellence populated by faculty from across disciplines to address specific issues in teaching, such as undergraduate first-year education. Their work is ongoing, but preliminary recommendations have been made to provide resources and recognition to faculty who teach high impact first-year GE courses.

What was the faculty governance process in developing the teaching model?

The model emerged from reports (linked above) submitted by the Academic Senate and Faculty task forces on teaching. The reports were compiled and a framework was created. Faculty experts in education and curriculum from across disciplines were consulted to help develop a plan, that would include substantial resources, to enact the faculty’s recommendations in the reports.The plan included:

  1. Defining excellence in teaching at USC
  2. Developing development opportunities (as a resource to schools only, not required)
  3. Developing a peer-review process (with available resources and training) to evaluate best teaching practices (as a resource to schools only, not required)
  4. Revising the student evaluation instrument to reduce bias and increase utility to faculty
  5. Developing recommendations to strengthen rewards for teaching excellence.

An advisory board of faculty experts was convened, comprised of faculty from across disciplines, to provide guidance and feedback on various elements of the plan. The Academic Senate was consulted during the 2017-2018 academic year and input was sought from faculty councils on various aspects of the plan, and offers were made to council chairs to hold information/feedback sessions in every school; 11 have been held to date. Some chairs preferred to wait to hold information/feedback sessions until or if their faculty felt it was needed, while others preferred to get the information from their deans of faculty.

How was the USC Definition of Excellence in Teaching developed?

The definition originated from consultation with education experts in the Rossier School of Education. It was then revised by the advisory board to more closely reflect the values and unique educational opportunities of USC. The definition was discussed at the November Academic Senate meeting, and was sent to the Executive Board in February for feedback.

Is the USC Definition expected to be the standard by which all teaching is developed, evaluated, and rewarded?

No. School-based definitions of excellence in teaching will be created by faculty. And all development, evaluation, and reward criteria within a school should be tied to each school’s definition. Faculty may decide to adopt the USC definition as their school-based definition. They may decide to customize the existing definition. Or they may decide to develop an entirely different definition based on best teaching practices in their discipline. The only university guidance is that school-based definitions be broadly aligned with the USC definition, and that they be grounded in evidence-based best teaching practices.

What is the university investment in teaching development? Are faculty required to participate?

The university, through CET, has developed teaching development opportunities in the form of

  1. Institutes for future faculty (graduate students), new faculty, faculty fellows (teaching leaders), and school-based institutes for mid- to late-career faculty run by faculty fellows.
  2. Online video-based teaching development modules
  3. Teaching resource guides and templates

All of these resources are directly tied to the criteria in the USC definition of excellence in teaching.

Schools and faculty are not required to use CET’s development resources or opportunities. They were developed to assist faculty with teaching development without overloading schools by requiring them to create their own development programs. Schools are free to develop, support, or sponsor their own teaching development opportunities, or to use CET’s and augment by providing discipline-specific development opportunities. The only university guidance is schools should offer teaching development opportunities, and they should promote skills tied to the school’s definition of excellence in teaching.

Why did the student evaluation instrument and its use change?

The recommendations from the faculty committee reports (linked above) recommended a revision of the student evaluation instrument, and a move to a peer-review system of teaching evaluation. The student evaluation instrument was revised (See October and April memos) to

  1. Provide subscales that were more useful to faculty
  2. Include items on students’ experience of inclusive practices
  3. Include student engagement items (intended to help students see their own role in their learning, and to give faculty information on engagement)
  4. Decrease biased responses by removing vague items and giving guidance on how to give professional feedback
  5. A new protocol was added to increase response rates to address faculty concerns about low response rates.

The provost accepted these faculty recommendations to move away from student evaluations as a primary measure of teaching effectiveness, because evidence has shown they do not measure teaching effectiveness and are not correlated with learning outcomes. They are also prone to systematic bias against women, and possibly faculty of color. Students are not experts in instruction and course design, but we were relying on them to be our expert reviewers in our previous system.

Student evaluations are an important source of information about students’ experiences, and should be used by faculty to adjust their teaching strategies. Faculty’s responsiveness to student feedback could be measured in a review of teaching reflections statements. In addition, based on feedback from faculty and deans of faculty, the Provost has agreed that schools may use student evaluations as one of multiple sources of data about student engagement, one component of the teaching evaluation process, but should ensure bias is not perpetrated on faculty during evaluation. They can also be used for a number of other purposes laid out in a communication to deans of faculty.

Why are we moving to peer-review? 

Peer-review was the recommended model from the faculty committee reports, and the provost accepted those recommendations and put resources to implementing them (see memo). The rationale for peer-review has many layers.

  1. It promotes teaching development. Rather than having evaluation based on two scores from vague items on student evaluation, faculty will receive feedback on their strengths and where they can improve their instruction, their course design, their assessments, their inclusive practices, and other elements of teaching. Peer-review can make the evaluation process both meaningful and informative, providing both formative and summative evaluation.
  2. The act of reviewing one’s peers can also promote teaching development, allowing faculty to learn from each other’s work, much like in peer-review of scholarship.
  3. Learning to use peer-review tools is informative to one’s own teaching, as it allows faculty to learn about best practices and to do critical self-reflection on their teaching.
  4. And of course peer-review is the standard used in academia. We should be reviewing one another’s work, and providing both support and challenge.
  5. Recently, there have also been arbitration decisions siding with faculty who felt student evaluations were an invalid measure of teaching effectiveness, and that teaching dossiers and peer review were better suited to evaluating teaching.

There is early empirical support for peer-review evaluation of teaching, and many top universities are also moving toward this model, but there is room for us to conduct more in-depth examination of its multifaceted impact. The literature is in agreement that training for reviewers is critical for success, which is why CET is providing training for CET tools. If schools decide to not use CET tools, they are asked to ensure training occurs for faculty to increase accurate reviews and decrease bias.

Do schools have to use CET’s peer-review tools?

No. Schools may choose to adopt CET’s resources, edit them in any way they see fit to match their pedagogical practices, or develop their own peer-review tools. The only university guidance is that their criteria be grounded in the best teaching practices found in the school’s own definition of teaching excellence.

How do we know peer-review will not also be biased?

Bias, while sometimes explicit, is more often implicit and unintentional. We will never eliminate bias completely, but we are able to affect it much more with faculty-led evaluations than we are with student evaluations. To reduce bias in peer-review we have done the following:

  1. The first step in reducing bias will be raising awareness that bias exists and how to overcome it, through bias training. The School Diversity and Inclusion Plans should include bias training for any faculty member who influences the hiring, merit, promotion, tenure, or continuing appointment of another faculty member; this effectively means most or all faculty.
  2. All CET peer-review tools measure either the presence or absence of a best teaching practice. The evaluations are not comprised solely of subjective narrative, but of observable behavior that would be expected in one class observation. We recommend the same objective approach for peer review tools schools may create on their own.
  3. CET offers training for faculty on its tools, should schools choose the use them, so that there is greater accuracy in identifying best practices (validity), better inter-rater agreement (reliability), and so that biased tendencies can be addressed and remedied. Should schools decide to develop their own peer-review tools they should also provide training on those tools.
  4. CET recommends two independent reviews for each faculty as a measure to correct for bias.
  5. Some schools are considering creating an exchange program so that faculty from the same discipline, but outside the program, review faculty to cut down on bias.

How will this affect merit, tenure, promotion, and continuing appointment?

Faculty who lead the school plan development should determine the most reasonable path forward in developing the reward structure. For example, they may decide that to be promoted to associate professor or receive tenure, investment in foundational teaching and learning principles, and demonstration of core best practices in teaching, are appropriate. This would allow junior faculty to create a good foundation for teaching, while protecting their time to ensure success at promotion or tenure time. Whereas for promotion to full professor or receiving continuing appointment, faculty may determine that teaching leadership, investment in peer-review of colleagues, or top peer review evaluations are needed.

What are the next steps?

The Provost’s office has been working with school leaders to help them devise a process for faculty-led school-based teaching plan development. CET created a plan template to help faculty envision what particular parts of the plan might include. The examples given in the template are intended only to guide discussion or provide options. CET’s resources are noted often because they exist already, and are customizable, but they are not required. Schools may decide to do their own research and develop their own resources, or use resources created externally. University guidance is indicated with asterisks. The first part of the plan template requires schools to document how faculty governance, feedback, and agreement on the plan occurred. Faculty guidance is embedded in every section of the plan template.

We have envisioned a year-long process for developing the plans. We have asked school leaders to work with a faculty taskforce to sketch out a plan their faculty can support. The Provost has asked that the evaluation part of the plan be submitted by the end of Spring. Plan development will continue in the next academic year. We expect many schools will opt for a phased implementation. For example, with regard to peer-review, schools may use a teaching reflection statement for merit one year, and institute another tool, such as syllabus review, the next. Perhaps the following year review of assessments will be launched, and then class observation. This will give schools time to fully flesh out criteria, processes, and plans for implementation.

How can I get involved in the planning stage?

Contact your faculty council chair or dean’s office to let them know you are interested in helping contribute to the teaching plan.

Last revised October 12, 2018