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