Evaluations inspire teaching success

As a lecturer at a respected university in Thailand, evaluating my students is a critical part of my job. I will do this four to five times a term, assessing their assignments, their progress, their development.

The feedback I give hopefully points students in the right direction, and the scores that they earn from me -- in ways both large and small -- can determine their future.

But at the end of each term, after all of the scores are computed and letter grades are settled, comes a moment of reckoning: the student evaluation of the lecturer.

The evaluation is typically a questionnaire with a five-point scale response from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree", which doesn't in all cases sufficiently tell the story.

For me, some items are more damning than others. Did the instructor appear professional?

"Somewhat agree."

I take this as a personal affront, even if it is somewhat true. And then come the comments. Even though they are optional, they are the most consequential, if nothing else, to the lecturer's fragile ego.

Student comments range from the pleasant yet generic, "Thank you teacher! Great job!" to the disgruntled "Too much reading" comment.

They can be over-the-top, with comments like "Ajarn is the best teacher I ever had!!!!", and they can be passive aggressive saying things like, "I didn't like my score, but it's ok".

However, from time to time, students raise real and sophisticated concerns. They comment about mixed expectations, low engagement, and questions of fairness. Some students take the time to write thoughtful feedback for the sincere benefit of the lecturer and for the students who will take the class in the future. Their observations can be truly instructive.

The question is: What is the consequence of this student evaluation for a lecturer in a Thai university? Barring any serious form of misconduct, the answer is nil. And this is a problem.

In Thai culture, it is well known that we ajarn enjoy a high level of deference and privilege. Students show us extraordinary respect, and even when frustrated with us, they generally accept our word and authority. It is a true luxury that we do not generally need to worry about things like discipline with our almost completely agreeable students.

In many ways, this form of cultural deference is what makes Thailand work. It is no secret that respect for hierarchy and power is central to Thai life, and it partly explains the relative peace and harmony we enjoy in spite of the never-ending drama of our politics and governance. Respect and deference ought not to be underestimated for their role in maintaining face and relations among people working together. This is a true strength.

However, it is also true that many of us working in higher education have made a living routinely railing against rigid power structures. We complain about the dearth of critical thinking in the Thai education system. We admonish the poor teaching and teacher-quality year after year. We plead with students to ask questions, to engage in debate and discussion, and to challenge authority.

But not, however, when it comes to the student evaluation of ourselves.

When lecturers get a good evaluation with enthusiastic comments, they will hold it up as validation of their life-changing work in the classroom. But in the very same motion, they will discard those evaluations that dare to question the ajarn's practice and poke the ego.

So beyond the student evaluation, there is no specific marker of classroom quality. However, student evaluations make up only a fraction of a lecturer's overall performance in the university organisation. Over nearly 20 years, having worked in three universities in Thailand, I have found this to be the case and am constantly saddened by it.

Student tuition makes up the bulk of university budgets and lecturer salaries, but student evaluations make up no more than 10% of a lecturer's overall performance evaluation, which has implications for lecturers' salaries and promotions.

Even at that low bar, many of my colleagues will complain that it is still too high. They will say that students don't understand the quality of education that they're getting. Students don't get that the methods used were actually great, and they won't recognise it until they grow up and look back.

I have heard the suggestion that the weight of individual student evaluations should be correlated with student GPAs, suggesting that feedback of only the high-performing students matters.

For someone like me, who predominantly teaches General Education classes, courses that students of all majors are required to take, does that not suggest that I must be the best teacher that I can be, for all students? Or should I just select the students that I want to be evaluated by?

I'm sure many students wouldn't mind that option.

And more than that, many of my colleagues complain about the pressure to publish and the ever-growing emphasis on research over teaching in universities. The real impact of our work, they will say, happens in the classroom.

But they will then refuse to be judged on their work in the classroom.

In other countries, there are websites like ratemyprofessors.com that give lecturers published scores based on student ratings. So far, we in Thai universities have been free from that kind of public ridicule, but it is only a matter of time.

I am terrified that I will one day be rated like an Airbnb host. My parents, who have an Airbnb listing, are "super hosts". I can't imagine the shame that they would have if their son was ever a "3-star" ajarn.

Yes, student evaluations can be problematic, and one does need to distinguish between frivolous complaints and authentic criticisms. But the truly reflective educator will use that one form of feedback to improve their practice, and the humble and empathetic lecturer will stay more attuned to student experiences and needs.

There are colleagues of mine who do discuss their student evaluations openly, and they are constantly tinkering with their practice, delivery, and assessments in direct response to student concerns. In part for that reason, they are widely recognised as great teachers.

But for those who routinely dismiss them, it is evident that they are widely dismissive of students in general. And everyone knows that too.

It is true that one or two evaluations are not indicative of a lecturer's performance, because teaching and learning is a dynamic enterprise, and there are good classes and bad ones -- classes where teachers and students gel and ones where they don't. But over time, and after several evaluations, we can see reliable trends emerge.

Lastly, many of my colleagues will argue that easy classes and easy teachers will get high ratings, undermining the value of the evaluation. I argue that it would be a mistake to suggest that students give so-called "easy" teachers high ratings and give difficult teachers low ones. This deeply underestimates the sophistication of the Thai university student, who I know also values quality and rigor, and not just easy grades.

Students know the difference between a nice teacher and a good one. Maybe university organisations in Thailand will one day renew their commitment to student experience, and not take them, our greatest asset, for granted. If we are going to be serious about improving educational in the country, we must give more respect to the only indicator we have of it.

Evaluations can put us on the right track. In ways large and small, students can make us better.

Matthew Robert Ferguson is Program Director of English Studies, Mahidol University International College.

 

 

Sources : https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1706166/evaluations-inspire-teaching-success

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