This section provides a brief overview of effective peer evaluation of faculty, as well as some guiding principles and considerations to keep in mind.
Why Peer Evaluation?
There are a lot of reasons why peer evaluation of faculty is necessary in institutions of higher learning. Most studies and reviews of the literature on peer review of teaching, for instance, agree that the purpose is to improve learning outcomes for students and provide professors with guidance about how to teach more effectively (Sachs and Parsell, 2014; Stewart and Valian, 2018). When done well, peer review of faculty holds the potential to help cultivate a supportive and collegial environment. Evaluations made by peers vary in nature from providing evaluative (summative) feedback, usually for the purpose of deciding things like promotions and tenure, to developmental (formative) feedback, which is focused primarily on professional development (Cohen and McKeachie, 1980; Brent and Felder, 2004). Ideally, it might involve a combination of both direct (via observations) and indirect assessment (e.g., evaluation of video recordings, written materials, and student performance outcomes) (Keig, 2000).
Faculty at different stages of the tenure process will benefit from opportunities to be recognized for the good work that they do and opportunities to improve. There are many existing models concerning how institutions might implement effective peer evaluations. Some models focus on merging both summative and formative feedback that helps faculty improve while feeling less judged and vulnerable in the process. In one model of peer review of teaching, for instance, the author suggests creating a semi-formal collaborative environment for peer review in which professors can meet with their reviewers in-person both before and following an assessment (Gosling, 2014). This same author argues for the importance of acknowledging faculty autonomy and providing an opportunity in the peer review process for reciprocal learning. In a discussion about faculty evaluation and tenure, Stewart and Valian (2018) advise that the peer evaluation models also include clearly communicated expectations and transparency regarding evaluative criteria.
There are perhaps as many models that exist regarding how to do it well as there are examples of what could go wrong. Passing judgment, after all, is an inherent part of the process and despite its necessity and embeddedness in academic settings, there are shortcomings and potential drawbacks of the peer review process that warrant further discussion and examination. At its worst, peer evaluations may lead to faculty members feeling judged, misunderstood, or undervalued (Ackerman, Gross, and Vigneron, 2009; Brent and Felder, 2004; Stewart and Valian, 2018). Brent and Felder (2004), for instance, point to the inconsistent evaluations of teaching that might occur whenever evaluations are based on a single class observation or source of data. Another publication by Cohen and McKeachie (1980) raises the question of who is best equipped to evaluate teaching within the classroom setting and emphasizes how important it is for professors to evaluate only what they have been trained to effectively judge. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, studies have found that interpersonal, implicit, and group biases (e.g., related to race, gender, age, nationality, and/or sexual orientation) have the potential to interfere with the peer evaluation process (Ackerman, Gross, and Vigneron, 2009; Perna, 2001; Stewart and Valian, 2018). The best models for peer review are designed to address many of these obstacles.
- To learn more about bias in student evaluations of teaching, see this Toolkit’s section on “Revisiting Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs)” and its summary of “Concerns about Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs).”
- To learn more about bias in peer evaluations, see this Toolkit’s section on “Interrupting Bias in Peer Evaluation of Teaching.”
Guiding Principles for Effective Peer Evaluation
Evaluation processes examine faculty performance in the key areas of their work, which typically include some blend of teaching, scholarship, and service. Evaluation looks back at recent performance to identify strengths and weaknesses, and looks forward via the development of thoughtful plans for maintaining or improving performance. Those evaluated and those evaluating actively share information and engage in active, structured dialogue throughout the evaluation process.
Effective evaluation processes are rooted in these general principles:
- Faculty performance standards should be consistent with departmental and institutional values, which should likewise be in alignment. Faculty performance standards should be described in the Faculty Handbook and clear benchmarks identified for how and when faculty meet those standards. Evaluation processes should similarly be articulated in clear detail, including timeline, the evidence considered and who should provide that information, and the relative weight of the various, diverse activities of faculty. Informal conversations about benchmarks should align with official standards and a contact person identified for answering questions about evaluation standards and processes. Statements of performance standards and evaluative processes should be periodically reviewed and either affirmed or revised.
- The evaluation process should be as open as possible within the constraints of using confidential information from colleagues, students, and others.
Regular and Timely
- Evaluations should occur on a regular schedule that is consistently implemented and that provides sufficient time for any needed adaptations before the major pre-tenure reviews, as well as tenure and promotion reviews.
- Faculty members being evaluated should be invited to contribute their perspectives to their reviews, through sharing details of their work, retrospective reflections, and aspirational plans for next steps. Evaluators should share feedback and review outcomes in ways that enable continuing dialogue and empower faculty agency in determining next steps in their work.
Accurate, Constructive, Holistic, Actionable Feedback
- Evaluations should provide feedback that accurately assess actual performance relative to established benchmarks; that considers their work performance in the context of with other work and life responsibilities; that identifies both strengths and weaknesses; and that enables faculty to reflect on and identify their next steps for maintaining or improving performance in dialogue with their department chair and/or other supervisors and mentors.
- For pre-tenure colleagues, these features are important for identifying key adjustments needed as they work toward tenure.
- For post-tenure colleagues, these features are important for motivation and support.
- For deans and department chairs, these features are important for major reviews and for identifying meritorious work.
- Faculty are affirmed for the points of strength in their work and affirmed when they meet or exceed performance standards. When faculty do not meet performance standards, this information is shared with kind directness accompanied by support and direction toward improving changes so as to meet those standards. Additional support might include new mentoring relationships, creating professional development plans, and incentivizing desirable actions.
- Faculty are held responsible for fulfilling their work obligations and meeting performance standards in all areas. Evaluative processes identify when faculty do or do not meet standards and, when faculty do not meet standards, established mechanisms for holding them accountable are consistently implemented.
Additional Considerations to Keep in Mind
Through the implementation of evaluation processes, those conducting reviews should remain thoughtfully conscious of and conduct reviews in light of the following considerations:
- Humans are biased beings and both explicit and implicit predispositions influence our evaluations of others. Evaluators should be attentive to their own biases and those of others contributing information to the evaluation process, particularly student contributions to the evaluation of teaching. Evaluators should actively work to counter such biases, particularly regarding Information that is stereotype inconsistent and can particularly influence evaluations. Informing books, articles, videos, and trainings regarding bias are generally available, and evaluators should pursue professional development with respect to their awareness of and responsiveness to bias. This Toolkit includes a ready-to-implement workshop in the section on “Interrupting Bias in Peer Evaluation of Teaching.”
- Specificity in applying performance standards results in better evaluations, in contrast to broad, sweeping statements. For example, a faculty member might be incredibly effective at helping students with questions through diverse modes of engagement but need to provide more detailed or more timely feedback to their students on assessments; in contrast to this same faculty member being identified as generally a good teacher.
- Evaluators must be attentive to the interplay between being consistent and considering the particular circumstances when applying performance standards. Faculty can often meet performance standards in a variety of ways, and evaluators must aspire to remain consistent in their evaluations as they weigh different evidence from different faculty members. In addition, work-in-progress toward meeting performance standards should be considered. Finally, context matters and evaluations of performance should take into account the work and life responsibilities of the faculty members being evaluated.
- For faculty with known records of performance, evaluators must remain open to new determinations based on more recent evidence about their performance. Evaluators can be unduly influenced by anchoring to initial impressions and confirmation bias of past memories and must be attentive to observing changes in a faculty member’s performance.
- The diverse perspectives of multiple evaluators yield more accurate and more reliable evaluations that may be less susceptible to bias. Whenever possible, particularly for negative reviews, the conclusions of evaluations should draw on the observations and insights of multiple evaluators.
- Finally, regardless of the final conclusions and outcomes of an evaluation, all faculty should receive thoughtful, direct feedback that will enable their future successes.
Evaluators may also find the following resources helpful:
- Chapter 9 of An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence, Abigail J Stewart and Virginia Valian, The MIT Press, 2022, ISBN: 978-0262545266
- HBR Guide to Delivering Effective Feedback, HBR Guide Series, Harvard Business Review Press, 2016, ISBN: 978-1633691643
- HBR Guide to Performance Management, HBR Guide Series, Harvard Business Review Press, 2017, ISBN: 978-1633692787