Evan Riggs
Office of the Provost

KU engineering department wins $100,000 grant to work on a new model for evaluating teaching

Tue, 02/08/2022

University of Kansas Professor of chemical and petroleum engineering Prajna Dhar (middle) works on the AAU Stem Department Demonstration Project with associate professor and project team member Kyle Camarda at CTE meetings of the Benchmarks and TEval initiative. Dhar is a co-leader of the project at KU.  

LAWRENCE – The Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering at the University of Kansas has been selected to receive a $100,000 award from the Association of American Universities to support projects that lead to better methods for evaluating STEM teaching.

KU is one of only five AAU member departments to receive the award.

Susan Williams, Charles E. & Mary Jane Spahr Professor and department chair, will lead the project. She will work with Prajna Dhar, professor of chemical & petroleum engineering, and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and a professor of psychology. Dhar and Greenhoot will be co-leaders of the effort, which will involve all faculty in C&PE.

The approach being developed will provide a more holistic assessment of the quality of faculty teaching, one that integrates information provided by multiple perspectives.

“This is critically important work that is often overlooked,” Williams said. “If we want excellent teaching, we need an evaluation system that recognizes the intellectual work that goes into helping our students learn. We are excited to be part of a process that has the potential to help STEM departments around the country.”

C&PE faculty members Kyle Camarda, Karen Nordheden, Alan Allgeier, Russell Ostermann and Jennifer Robinson round out the project team members.

Universities have long relied on student surveys to evaluate teaching, but a growing body of research has pointed to many weaknesses in that approach. The student voice is important, but it provides only one perspective on an instructor’s teaching. Without a broader evaluation system, many instructors have also been reluctant to adopt teaching practices that lead to deeper learning and greater success for students. That approach, known as evidence-based teaching, also helps close gaps between majority and minority groups.

“Evaluation of evidence-based teaching practices ensure better and more equitable learning experiences for students,” Dhar said. “Working with partners at AAU also gives KU further opportunities to showcase and disseminate this work widely.”

The model builds on the KU department’s work in an initiative to improve teaching evaluation, known as Benchmarks for Teaching Effectiveness, led by Follmer Greenhoot and Doug Ward, associate director at the KU teaching center and associate professor of journalism & mass communications. The Benchmarks initiative is part of a collaborative project known as TEval, which received a $2.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve teaching evaluation. It involves the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; the University of Colorado, Boulder; and Michigan State University.

The chemical & petroleum engineering department’s approach involves creating “peer triads,” teams of three or four faculty members who share teaching strategies and provide each other feedback across the year. Williams and Dhar were instrumental in helping the Center for Teaching Excellence develop the peer triad approach when they were faculty fellows there. In C&PE’s model, the triads will produce evidence that can be used for the evaluation of individual instructors’ teaching. They will also promote broader curriculum discussions among faculty, helping ensure that courses in the program allow students to gain crucial skills over time.

This AAU award enables C&PE to implement its approaches at scale and to evaluate the success of the program. Project leaders hope to explore whether different evaluators can reliably and fairly apply evaluation standards, whether the system is feasible and sustainable, and whether it diminishes bias in the evaluation process.

“We have learned an enormous amount about how to evaluate teaching effectiveness through our work in Benchmarks and TEval,” Follmer Greenhoot said. “One of the most exciting aspects of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering’s approach is that it is also designed to encourage faculty to be innovative in their instruction. The award will help the department continue to make strides in developing a fairer and more equitable approach to teaching evaluations, one that also supports better teaching and student learning.”

The teaching evaluation demonstration projects are part of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, which was established in 2011. That initiative has worked to influence the culture of STEM departments at research universities by encouraging faculty members to use teaching practices proven to maximize student engagement and support student learning. The demonstration projects are funded through a $570,000 gift to AAU from the Sarah Gilbert & Carl Wieman Charitable Fund.

Other awards in the program will go to the departments of Engineering Sciences at Dartmouth College; Chemistry at Michigan State University; Biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Chemistry at the University of Southern California.

 — Doug Ward is a co-author of this news release.

Photo: Prajna Dhar, University of Kansas professor of chemical & petroleum engineering (middle), works on the AAU Stem Department Demonstration Project with associate professor and project team member Kyle Camarda at CTE meetings of the Benchmarks and TEval initiative. Dhar is a co-leader of the project at KU. Credit: Doug Ward. 

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