UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At its first meeting of the 2021-22 academic year on Sept. 14, the Penn State Faculty Senate passed a major advisory report recommending a new format for faculty teaching assessment; heard updates from University leadership, including about Penn State’s ongoing and multipronged COVID-19 mitigation strategies; and passed an update to the Senate’s policy on pass/fail grading.
Faculty teaching assessment
The report passed by the Senate recommends the University implement a new framework for assessing faculty performance that incorporates multiple data points, including student feedback, self-reflection from faculty members and feedback from peers. Presented by the Senate’s Committee on Faculty Affairs, Educational Equity and Campus Environment, and Intra-University Relations, the recommendations were developed in conversation with stakeholders including faculty, students and administrators from across the institution.
“Our objectives were to provide feedback for course development and instruction, provide administrators tools to evaluate how faculty use feedback, and decrease potential for bias,” said Senator Renee Bishop Pierce while presenting the recommendations. “We are recommending a three-pillar framework that includes student feedback and peer feedback, all informing faculty self-reflection.”
The report recommends replacing the existing mechanism for student feedback — the Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness (SRTEs) — with two student surveys at the mid-point and end of each semester. By creating a mechanism for instructors to receive student feedback during the semester, the recommendation aims to create opportunities for faculty to evaluate responses and adjust as needed to best engage students for the remainder of the course. The report also recommends focusing questions for student feedback around learning objectives and teaching methods, rather than their perception of the individual faculty member, with the goal of reducing instances of bias in responses.
By incorporating both peer feedback from fellow faculty members, as well as self-reflection from the instructor about their own effectiveness and performance, the recommendations aim to create a more holistic framework for evaluating faculty effectiveness. The report notes that individual units should have the flexibility to determine their own best practices for peer feedback and self-evaluation within the framework provided in the report.
Pierce added that the assessment of teaching should be a dynamic and iterative process.
The report recommends the creation of a joint teaching assessment task force including the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs and members of the Senate to work collaboratively on implementing the recommendations, gathering data and evaluating their effectiveness post-implementation. The report will next be sent to University leadership for consideration and response.
Updates from leadership
Penn State President Eric Barron shared with the Senate updates about recent developments across the University, including the groundbreaking for the new Palmer Museum of Art and the recent transformative gift to name the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing.
Highlighting Penn State’s ongoing efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, Barron said he and other members of the University’s senior leadership have been steadily working to implement the recommendations of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety — including recently approving the creation of a new Center for Racial Justice at Penn State, about which Barron said more information would be forthcoming.
Barron also highlighted One Big Week, an initiative in which Big Ten institutions are competing to raise the most funds for student emergency support. Barron encouraged Penn Staters to consider making a gift to support the University’s Student Care and Advocacy Emergency Fund before the event closes on Sept. 18.
Barron also shared updates about the University’s COVID-19 protocols and ongoing virus mitigation efforts. The University’s COVID-19 dashboard now displays both testing and vaccination information, including for each individual campus. As of Sept. 14, at University Park, 88.9% of residential students are vaccinated, while 83% of non-residential students are vaccinated, which Barron said demonstrates the success of the University’s ongoing efforts. He said Penn State’s leadership is also working closely with each Commonwealth Campus to address the unique needs of each campus location to continue to drive increased vaccination rates.
In response to a faculty member’s question about a recent incident in Willard Building on the University Park campus that resulted in a faculty member being charged with harassment, Barron said the University takes these matters seriously and responded immediately. Penn State police investigated the incident, charges have been filed, and a separate internal University investigation is ongoing. The faculty member is on administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation. Barron said that Penn State is committed to transparency, and works with the police in all instances of potentially criminal behavior.
Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones also briefed the Senate on the University’s budget. He said the current year, as well as the 2022-23 budget year, are both likely to be challenging due in large part to pandemic impacts, but that Penn State remains well positioned to continue realizing its education, research and land-grant mission. This year is the first that units across the University have implemented the new five-year budgeting model, allowing unit leaders to be more strategic in their planning, and Jones said units across the University have “stepped up and done a great job” in planning and aligning their budgets with their and the University’s five-year strategic plan.
New pass/fail grading policy
The Senate passed an update to Senate Policy 49-60, reframing the policy as concerning “pass/fail” grading instead of “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” grading. The update was developed by the Policies Influencing Equity task force, which developed the temporary alternative grading policies that were put in place during the previous fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters and was charged by the Senate with examining other policies to advance educational equity and contribute to an educational experience that is less driven by cumulative GPA.
Senate Policy 49-60 predates and is separate and distinct from temporary alternative grading policy 49-70, which is no longer in effect. Instead, the policy details how many credits, and under what circumstances, an undergraduate student may elect to have a course graded as pass/fail in place of a letter grade during a normal semester.
Under the updated policy, an undergraduate student may elect to take up to seven credits per semester on a pass/fail basis. Baccalaureate degree students may take no more than 24 total credits as pass/fail over the course of their undergraduate career, while associate degree students may take no more than 12. Letter grades from A through C would be recorded as PS, or “passing satisfactory,” a grade of D would be recorded as PD, or “passing D,” and a grade of F would be recorded as UNS, or “unsatisfactory.”
Certain classes, including entrance-to-major controlled courses, may be exempted from pass/fail grading by the unit offering the course, with approval from the Senate.
The policy stresses that students are strongly advised to consult with their academic advisor and consider the possible ramifications of electing to use pass/fail grading — including on future academic applications, scholarship awards, graduation distinctions and future professional applications or licensing requirements — before utilizing this option for any course.
Other Senate business
The Senate also undertook a number of other items of business, including:
- Adding the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion to the standing rules of two of the Senate’s committees;
- Recommending the University investigate how policies related to academic holds impact marginalized student populations;
- Creating a new policy to organize all of the Senate’s related policies on curriculum and instruction in one centralized location; and,
- Passing an advisory report recommending the addition of clarifying language related to contract length to the University’s policy on definition of academic ranks.
Faculty Senate Chair Bonj Szczygiel also shared that Provost Jones would participate in a faculty town hall hosted by the Senate from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 21.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Senate will take place on Oct. 19.