A More Evenhanded Approach to Tenure

by Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Just how important is teaching in engineering education? Students, parents, and state legislators consider it very important. Mission statements tout it prominently, and everyone from university presidents to athletic coaches talks about—cynics would say “pays lip service to”—its central role.
But at tenure time, research and the ability to bring in money are what generally matter most. Until recently, teaching was pretty much ignored by engineering departments at research institutions when it came to tenure. For the most part now, adequate teaching is a minimum requirement, but the decision is still usually based on research and funding. Great teaching can play a role in questionable cases or when tenure is considered a year early, but outstanding teachers who don't have research credentials are not likely to win tenure.

At the same time, teaching has become more important. Pressure from state legislative and funding agencies has contributed to a greater emphasis on teaching. Educational scholarship (particularly if funded by NSF education grants), teaching on television, the writing of successful textbooks, the preparation of multimedia presentations, and the application of pedagogical technology are becoming major components of the tenure decision in some cases, particularly in departments where research is not a high priority, such as engineering technology or non-Ph.D.-granting programs. These are important activities but by themselves don't guarantee quality teaching.

Then how should teaching quality be judged? The best way is by using multiple measurements. Student evaluations are a valid approach because studies have shown that the answers to general questions such as determining the “best teacher” or “best course” do correlate with how much students learn. However, before being used in the tenure process, student evaluation scores should be adjusted for student motivation, class size, course level, course type (core versus elective), and other extraneous factors that are known to affect the score.

Another useful measure is a direct comparison of student learning among different instructors. Although difficult, this can be done with multiple course sections if a professor—particularly one not involved in teaching a section—independently prepares the tests used by multiple professors.
Other methods include the time-consuming—but essentially irreplaceable—peer review of reading assignments, homework, and tests to determine the level of content coverage. Classroom visits are reliable if reviewers are trained in what to look for and if they make repeated visits.

When teaching is included in promotion and tenure decisions, professors are motivated to improve their teaching. They can do so by reflecting on what has worked and what hasn't in lectures and improving tests by evaluating the questions to be sure they are unambiguous. Portfolios are effective for arranging all of this information, and they encourage professors to reflect on their teaching. Other tactics include asking for evaluations from students during the semester, reflecting on the responses, and making some changes in the course. They might also take a teaching workshop such as the ASEE National Effective Teaching Institute, and find a teaching mentor.

Since the bar for tenure is forever being raised, future candidates need to understand both the written and the unwritten requirements. One can argue about the priorities for tenure, but the risk of losing the argument carries a severe penalty for assistant professors who might be advised to save their arguments until they have tenure. Full professors, who sit on tenure committees, and administrators are the ones who should take the lead if there is to be any change in the priority of teaching.

Teaching may never be accorded the status of research, but improving your teaching will buttress your research record when the time comes for the tenure decision. And for an established scholar, it may add another feather to your cap.

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's engineering school. For more teaching tips, see www.asee.org/publications/teaching.cfm.

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