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Mar 2001 Vol. 5   No. 1

........   TEACHER APPRAISAL  ........
Student Feedback: Strengths & Limitations
Mrs Ann Wee
Senior Fellow
Department of Social Work & Psychology

No society rewards adequately the excellent teacher; nor adequately penalizes those slobs who, slobbishness notwithstanding, somehow manage to hang on in the profession.

—Anon

 

The author of the above words was on the right track: the influence of the teacher on the individual can last a lifetime, and at a macro level impacts on the quality of a nation’s human capital. The nation that cares what is happening to its young—and to its budget for education—must devise means of making a fair assessment of how its teachers (from kindergarten assistants to senior professors) are performing.

The challenge is not so much a scale that distinguishes the most scintillating of stars from the more abysmal of the category ‘slob’: fairly crude measures will achieve this. The brilliant stars are clearly visible, and one way or another sludge usually gets flushed out of the system. Much more challenging is to arrive at a measure which distinguishes between various middle levels of stardom, and which identifies lower stardom from upper stodge and so on down the line.
A refined and adequate evaluation of teaching quality is a complex challenge. The video/closed circuit TV pursuit of us all, through all our lectures, tutorials and in-office mentoring, would provide no doubt, rather comprehensive evidence on which to base assessments. But this is highly unlikely. Fortunately the ‘finance boys’ and ‘girls’ of any foreseeable establishment would view the costs of such a system (if not the other ghastly implications), as too horrible to contemplate.

Grades and exam results tell only part of the story. Teaching focused entirely on high marks achievement can become the very negation of its true purpose—the cultivation of educated minds. Moreover, it is students’ progress rather than the absolute grades, which tells the most about the quality of teaching, and measures of progress are more complex to programme than records of grades.

Whatever other measures are selected, the consumers’ view of the whole process is clearly an essential component, as was recognised from the early days of NUS. We have by now a long history of revising the student feedback format, in search of the most effective instrument. Our primordial efforts, fuelled equally by zeal and good intention, called for very detailed inputs. By the time they had covered all their lectures and tutorials, students were staggering with feedback exhaustion. They fed-back on this phenomenon, by haemorrhaging out of feedback altogether, in such large numbers that no fair assessments could be drawn from the anaemic bundles of returns available for analysis. We learnt, and after a range of trials and errors, have now arrived at a streamlined and apparently acceptable model.

Much has been written overseas about methods, and about the value and limitations of the whole student feedback process. It is, for example, a limitation that what students look for, may not be totally in line with the objectives of education. The literature notes that staff who grade strictly do not find favour. Students value their alma mater’s reputation for high standards, but find the implications of this less than palatable when translated into demands for high standards from them individually. My own experience illustrates this sad fact. In more than a decade of reasonably favourable feedback, there appears one single-semester drop in student esteem, as marked as an arctic storm on the weather chart of a temperate clime. Feedback took place the day after term papers had been returned to the class.

The qualitative section in the form, which allows students to comment in their own words, can be especially valuable, but is relatively little used. There may be cultural factors which hold back the use that Singaporean students make of this opportunity, as we all bring to the giving of feedback our own personal experience of being on the receiving end. Many Chinese students have grown up in very caring homes, but where scolding (or something more severe) for undesired behaviour, has been the parents’ main child-rearing strategy. No oral response to the news that their child has topped the class, but parental pleasure perhaps shown by a family outing to a restaurant: everyone understanding the reason for the outing, and warm feeling all round, but nothing actually said. Only those with very modern parents have received much articulated praise. The inherited wisdom teaches that praise can lead to slackening of effort, and should be used very sparingly if at all.

The giving of praise, like so much of what we do in our everyday lives, is learned behaviour. Reflecting their personal experience, it is small wonder (but also cold comfort) that students who are satisfied with their lectures and tutorials, tend to leave blank the space which allows them to comment in their own words. The entry, “no complaints”, perhaps epitomises a typical outcome of the conservative growing up experience!

So where does this leave us? Certainly not in ‘scrap-feedback’ mode. But it does leave us grateful that the powers-that-be do not regard student feedback as the ultimate tool in the staff assessment process. And we must hope that, as family life becomes more articulate, students will become comfortable to give more rounded feedback on their educational experience.

On one hand, responsible feedback from students can be an invaluable component in the teacher’s own professional growth and development. On the other, the responsibility to provide feedback gives the students a powerful role and institutionalises in a special way their ‘insider’ status. Being asked to give feedback will not by itself counteract the potentially alienating experience of receiving education in a mega institution. But a good feedback system can play a significant part in the complex of strategies necessary to counteract that potential.

 

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