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university teaching

Ontario's universities have tools to ensure that professors excel at teaching but they are not using them, says the province's Auditor-General.

The new audit focusing on three schools – Brock University, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the University of Toronto – found most professors appear to do a good job of teaching, though it acknowledges that measuring the quality of instruction is difficult.

But Auditor-General Jim McCarter criticized schools for not aggregating the results of student course evaluations. Mr. McCarter says professors getting low scores for their teaching don't appear to be getting help to improve their skills, and most faculty aren't taking full advantage of available teaching supports.

"Universities do a pretty good job at giving undergrads the opportunity to evaluate their courses and professors, but most don't summarize the student evaluation information and make it available to students so they could refer to it when choosing their courses," Mr. McCarter said.

As governments across Canada demand that universities be more accountable for their students' success, education leaders have struggled to find ways to quantify how well their faculty teach. Professors interviewed for the report said they feel they don't get enough feedback on their teaching. The report "noted examples where student evaluations had been critical of teaching performance but there was no evidence that specific guidance was provided or that the faculty members had sought assistance to improve their teaching skills."

After scouring student evaluations as well as tenure and promotion decisions, the audit found the vast majority of professors scored well at teaching, but that disconcerting exceptions went unchecked.

In one case, students repeatedly gave one professor below-average scores and an administrator suggested getting help with teaching skills, but the professor still scored eight out of 10 on teaching performance in an appraisal. Another professor won tenure despite repeated entreaties to improve teaching skills because, under that university's collective agreement, denying tenure requires firing the applicant. And there were numerous examples where faculty members with highly-rated research were promoted to full professor positions despite scoring well below average on student evaluations. The report doesn't identify which of the three universities it is describing in any given finding.

Perhaps as a result of the apparent undervaluing of teaching information in promotion decisions, the report also found that while virtually all universities have teaching and learning centres to help professors who want to improve, they are underused. At two of the universities surveyed, the average faculty member spent less than an hour per year in teaching workshops.

The findings "suggest a need to better ensure teaching quality is valued, encouraged and rewarded," the report concludes. The participating universities mostly embraced recommendations that they encourage training and ensure teaching is valued in promotion decisions. Two said they are already working on standardizing and aggregating student evaluations, and plan to make the results available.