Assessing teacher performance in law schools: Problems and prospects
A few weeks ago, the network of National Law Universities (NLUs) welcomed incoming students who have secured their places in these institutions after clearing the formidable hurdle of entrance tests. At present, there are sixteen institutions located all over India that form part of the experiment that was initiated with the establishment of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore in the late 1980s. A few more states have announced plans to establish institutions of a comparable design in the near future. The emergence of these considerably autonomous institutions dedicated to legal studies has been described by many as evidence of improvement in the quality and social perception of legal education. However, as pointed out elsewhere, much of the external scrutiny of these institutions is based on narrow parameters such as their intake of students through a competitive admissions process and their visible output in terms of how graduating students fare in the market for recruitment to well-paid positions in commercial law firms and businesses. An excessive emphasis on what happens at these points of entry and exit deflects attention away from several structural problems in the internal working of the NLUs. It is almost as if the essential features of an educational institution such as the performance of its teachers, the impetus needed for carrying out meaningful research and transparency in administration are unimportant and hence undeserving of sustained scrutiny.
In some instances, objections to apathetic teaching and opacity in administration have been sidestepped by pointing to the achievements of exceptional students in inter-institutional competitions and the job-market, wrongly assuming that these are comprehensive indicators of the institution’s quality. It is akin to saying that the citizens of a country should not be bothered about widespread irregularities in the distribution of public goods as long as it produces some star athletes who succeed in competitions. While this worrying trend can lead us towards a thicket of problems, lackadaisical and often inept teaching in the classroom is the foremost concern. This is largely a consequence of the difficulties faced in attracting and retaining motivated teachers. Since a majority of the students admitted to the five-year integrated law programmes tend to be from upper-middle class backgrounds, the perception of this problem is heightened in cases where teachers do not have the same level of proficiency in the English language or when they are unfamiliar with their students’ cultural preferences. Regardless of such oddities, there is no justification for administrators to sit idly when an instructor’s performance is found to be below par.
Many observers seem to believe that increasing teacher-pay is a ‘one-size fits all’ solution for improving the standards of instruction in the classroom. The assumption is that better salaries are more likely to attract competent individuals who may otherwise opt for other career avenues and at the same time act as an incentive for existing teachers to up their game. However, financial incentives alone are unlikely to yield the desired changes. For one, the disparity between the salaries given to university teachers and the income that can be earned by experienced litigators as well as those engaged in transactional lawyering is likely to persist. Furthermore, across the board pay-hikes by themselves may not stimulate a large pool of teachers to make conscious efforts towards self-improvement. The missing links are appropriate methods for assessing the performance of teachers as well as the periodic review of course-content and teaching techniques. While most of these schools have adopted formal measures such as preparatory workshops and refresher courses for faculty members, it is the feedback collected from students that often invites heated debates. Since I have been at the giving and receiving end of such anonymous feedback on taught courses, I can safely say that there is some resistance to the idea that it should be given weightage for routine staffing decisions such as subject-allocation and relatively infrequent ones such as the regularization of contract teachers or promotions for those with assured tenure.
The usual method for gathering such feedback is by way of questionnaires distributed to students at the end of the instructional period in a term. In some institutions, the same process is being conducted online with the help of software that enables individualized surveys. The students are asked to anonymously rate the performance of their course instructors under different-heads such as the quality of reading assignments, communication skills, time-management, responsiveness to questions, guidance for writing requirements and availability outside the classroom for answering doubts. The insistence on anonymity seeks to serve a dual function, namely to ensure that those students who provide adverse feedback on their teachers do not face retaliation and conversely that those who provide positive reviews do not become the recipients of undue favouritism in the future.
Since autonomous institutions require the instructors who design and teach a course to evaluate their own students’ performance in examinations and term papers, there is scope for the feedback forms to include questions about the levels of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with grading patterns. This often turns out to be contentious since there is an understandable tendency on part of students to be more concerned about their eventual grades. The inherent risk is that grievances about stricter evaluation standards can play a predominant role in students’ evaluation of their own teachers who may otherwise be quite effective inside the classroom. Likewise, teachers who are comparatively lenient when it comes to grading may often get away with deficient teaching. A precautionary step that is taken in this regard is to release the content of the feedback to teachers only after the completion of the evaluation process. Irrespective of such distortions, it may be useful to recount the presumptive benefits and costs of collecting feedback in the first place.
The primary argument is that the instruction and evaluation process should put the needs and interests of students first. Since it is the students who interact with a teacher over the course of a term, they are best placed to gauge whether the latter’s performance meets their expectations. The apprehension is that in the absence of any credible feedback mechanism, instructors may become so detached from the needs of their students that the entire process can become redundant. This can happen in different scenarios. You may have the case of an instructor who is very knowledgeable and renowned for scholarship in the respective field. However, it is quite possible that this teacher communicates in a manner that is too complex. Even the choice of reading assignments and examination requirements may be beyond the reach of students who are in their formative stages. Given the extant power-relations in our classrooms, students may hesitate to openly point out such problems. On the other hand, we can consider the possibility of an instructor who is unable to meet the minimum standards expected in such a role. This could be evident in numerous ways such as poor communication skills, inadequate preparation for the classroom, disproportionate coverage of some topics which crowds out the time needed for others and an inability to engage with comments or queries from students. In some cases, this instructor may either evade incisive questions posed by students or resort to disproportionate assertions of authority when the students express their dissatisfaction. In the first scenario that involves the competent yet incomprehensible instructor, the anonymous feedback collected from students serves as a useful dialogical device which can help instructors in aligning their methods with the capacities and needs of their students. In the second scenario involving the underprepared or apathetic teacher, the feedback can highlight issues that need corrective interventions by administrators and other faculty members.
In turn, we must also examine the arguments against giving weightage to anonymous feedback gathered from students. As described above, students tend to overemphasize evaluation patterns instead of the quality of course materials and in-class teaching. This can lead to serious distortions if their ratings and comments are unquestionably used to make staffing decisions such as the removal of a contract teacher or the denial of promotion to someone with assured tenure. Furthermore, deep-rooted differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of students and teachers may lead to an escalation of minor animosities that routinely arise in campus life. However, the strongest objection to relying on student-generated responses falls back on an idealized characterization of higher education. The assumption is that teachers are positioned as trustees who are expected to act in their students’ best interests precisely because they possess the requisite experience and expertise to do so.
Sometimes it is in pursuit of the students’ long term interests that teachers prescribe challenging readings, engage in sophisticated classroom discussions and sternly monitor the student’s performance. Instructors may deliberately adopt provocative and seemingly counterintuitive positions in order to compel their students to examine issues from different perspectives. The use of such methods could be perceived as excessively burdensome by students, thereby leading to a pushback of sorts which is reflected in their ratings of a teacher. Students may often be unable to appreciate the teacher’s efforts to expose them to nuanced ways of reading and thinking. In fact, it is very likely that they may only understand the importance of what they were taught in hindsight, in some cases several years after they finish their first degree. In the autonomous law schools, there is the additional expectation of clearly demonstrating how what is discussed in the classroom bears any relevance to what students may encounter in the workplace. Especially among undergraduate students, this often creates an unhealthy impatience with discussions of theoretical materials. Owing to such possibilities within higher education, one may hold the view that staffing decisions made on the basis of student feedback can often prove to be counterproductive.
Coming back to the particular case of the newer law schools, it must be reiterated that most students come in with high expectations after securing top ranks in extremely competitive entrance tests, whereas the market for teaching positions is under-developed. This reality makes it difficult to fall back on the conventional wisdom about the nature of higher education. Viewed in this light, we must be skeptical of the claim that students are not in a position to judge their teachers. Even if that claim holds good to a certain extent, it is difficult to disagree with the qualified use of student feedback alongside other criterion for monitoring the performance of teachers. Some of us may have serious apprehensions if it plays a determinative role in decisions about continuation in service and promotions. The most serious objection would be that such a process likens the teacher-taught relationship with the one that exists between buyers and sellers of commercial goods and services. There may also be a worry that such measures could possibly invert the power-relations that exist between instructors and students. However, there is an unambiguous case to be made for its dialogic importance, principally to enable teachers to improve their methods of instruction and course-content over time.
Admittedly, the problem of unsatisfactory teaching in the NLUs cannot be tackled through reliance on student feedback alone. In many cases, the immediate cause is a mismatch between a teacher’s prior training and the assignment of teaching responsibilities. As described earlier, the overarching problem is that of a limited pool of individuals with the requisite qualifications who are willing to take up full-time teaching positions. Among those who are available, there tends to be a concentration of qualifications in certain fields such as constitutional law, substantive penal laws and public international law. Inevitably, practice-oriented subjects such as the laws relating to property, taxation and procedure are frequently taught by those who don’t have much exposure to the uncertainties that arise while dealing with clients and public officials in a professional setting. While there are a few who choose to teach these subjects after gaining experience in litigious or transactional settings, a majority of full-time teachers do not have such a background. While some career academicians may progressively become well versed with the statutes, precedents and principles related to these fields, students tend to feel shortchanged in the interim. The situation becomes even more unsatisfactory when efforts to involve practicing lawyers in the taught programmes attract those who may be unsuited for the latter. In some notable cases, even eminent justices and lawyers have struggled to perform in classrooms whose dynamics are fundamentally different from those inside the courtroom.
Apart from the presumption that the best talent in the legal profession may be consciously staying away from the teaching branch, another set of concerns can be identified with recruitment practices and administrative decision-making. While these issues deserve a much longer comment, I will briefly point out one of the visible maladies. There are numerous instances where instructors are initially hired to teach a given set of subjects but are subsequently asked to teach subjects in which they may have no previous experience or exposure. In conditions of scarcity, this may be a compromise that is eventually accepted by the immediate stakeholders. However, it is difficult to defend such a mismatch in elite institutions such as the NLUs which receive public funds and recover a considerable part of their operating costs from tuition fees. Unfortunately, age-based hierarchies and substantial reliance on teachers appointed on a contractual basis tends to aggravate this problem. Instead of trying to solve this problem of misallocation, administrators tend to become indifferent since younger teachers who are hopeful of regularization would be reluctant to openly disagree with the existing arrangements. There is the very real possibility of such checkerboard solutions becoming the norm and thereby eroding the quality of instruction inside the classroom.
The students who enroll in these residential institutions start their studies at an impressionable age. While a few approach these programmes with predetermined career preferences, a majority of the students form their subsequent choices through a fusion of experiences and influences, most importantly those shaped by their teachers and peers. Unfortunately, we seem to have come to a point where the contributions of teachers are being increasingly seen as incidental to the entirety of the student experience. If we do not take decisive steps to arrest this slide, there is a grave danger that the national law schools will be reduced to the pejorative description of degree-selling enterprises.
Sidharth Chauhan is an Assistant Professor at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad. He has previously clerked in the Supreme Court of India, New Delhi and taught at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.