Assessing and Rewarding Good Teaching

By Torgney Roxa

September 23, 2016

Top universities like McMaster have an obligation to ensure the on-going development of both teaching and research. They must routinely identify good and weak practices and recognise, support, and reward good teaching. We have long established traditions in how to evaluate and celebrate great research. We are challenged, however, when it comes to assessing and rewarding good teaching.

During my regular visits to McMaster, I have talked to a lot of people about how quality in teaching is assessed at the university. Add 30 years of similar conversations elsewhere and the comments not only resonate but also represent a fairly accurate picture. Department Chairs and Deans claim they do assess teaching continuously especially for hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions that occur regularly. Teaching assessments may come up during conversations with personnel and students but remain largely focused on information selected from student evaluations.


It is easy to criticise McMaster as an organization for not taking teaching seriously based on these types of assessments and responses. The methods mentioned above are not near any level of rigour expected in a top tier research-intensive institution. The degree of bias, the lack of criteria and transparency, and the absence of established norms for how to conduct assessments of teaching are all too obvious. On the other hand, student evaluations are being used in other institutions of higher education throughout the world. And, to be honest, to do nothing would be even worse. But is it really honest? Is it too much to expect from a top ranked university to be able to find better ways to evaluate teaching practices? If quality in teaching and education really matter, it isn’t difficult to find established evidence-based examples of how to assess and reward excellent teachers. That’s good news not only on the evidence front but also on how a rigorous process can be applied institutionally.

At Lund – my home university and in many ways similar to McMaster – we’ve taken this task on with much enthusiasm[1]. What is used at Lund is a peer-review, portfolio-based system with criteria and transparent procedures – in force for the past 15 years. Teachers who are awarded the title Excellent Teaching Practitioner (ETP) receive a raise in salary and a diploma, and their departments get extra funding. The system has inspired institutions in Sweden, other Scandinavian countries, and in several institutions in Europe, and South Africa to develop similar systems tailor-made for their own contexts. The Royal Academy of Engineering recommends institutions in the UK let themselves be inspired. But so far, the system has not found its way across the Atlantic.

At Lund, the first iteration of about 20% of senior teachers in the faculty of Engineering earned the title of ETP. The designation of an “excellent teaching practitioner” includes all categories of teachers including world renowned research experts. The reward system has earned the faculty a reputation for taking teaching and education seriously, something that we are able to monitor in the choices made by outstanding students who chose Engineering at Lund.

In my upcoming visit to McMaster, I’d be happy to meet with interested people to discuss further the teaching assessment system used at Lund, including various criteria and the assessment of teaching portfolios. The experience can offer good insights into how excellent teachers can be identified and rewarded for their exceptional engagement in teaching at McMaster and elsewhere.


Torgny Roxå will be visiting McMaster from October 3-7, 2016. If you’re interested in booking time to meet with Torgny, please complete the following form: Torgny will also be providing a public talk entitled ‘How to Change a University: Leadership’ on Monday October 3rd, 3-4:30pm in the MacPherson Institute Classroom (Mills Library, L504. All are invited to attend!

[1] Olsson, T., & Roxå, T. (2013). Assessing and rewarding excellent academic teachers for the benefit of an organization. European Journal of Higher Education, 3(1), 40 – 61.


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