Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Course Evaluations: Reasons, Methods, Meanings

Course evaluations have been an important part of my professional growth for around fourteen years. The reason that I started using them had less to do with growth than with self preservation, but over the years the process has become an integral part of development as a teacher. I use them for nearly all of my classes, and while they are only one part of my own development scheme, they provide a wealth of information.

About fourteen years ago I was employed by Prefectural University of Kumamoto as an English teacher, and my relationship with the school had become confrontational. They were discriminating against their non-Japanese teachers, and some of us had started the process of seeking redress. One of my students told me one day that an administrator from the school had stopped him one day and asked him about how I use English in my classroom, and whether I use Japanese. Their crooked thinking was obvious, they were going to use that information grounds to criticize my ability to teach. They could use that in several ways. They could say that using Japanese, which I use in class now as I did then, was inappropriate for an English class. They could say that not using Japanese in class was inappropriate. They could criticize my language ability. The only way for me to be sure that I was doing the right thing was to make sure that my practices had a grounding in teaching theory, and ask my students about it, so at the end of that semester I started using course evaluations. I have each and every one that I have asked my students to write since then, which is a considerable stack by now. They are a valuable reference on my teaching, and a shield against unfounded criticisms.

I have found that there are some valuable methods for setting up an evaluation in order to get the best information. I use statements with which students agree, disagree, or choose a response in between.

  • Use a 4-point scale if you are asking for a scaled response. (Odd numbered scales allow students to choose the easy neutral answer. With an even number of options, they must make a choice. )
  • Use the target language as much as possible. This is a learning experience, too. 
  • Include reverse statements for particularly important items. (For example: "The teacher was on time for class," and later, "The teacher was late for class." This has two advantages. First it lets you know if the student understood the statements. Second it lets you know if students are really reading the statements or just answering at random.)
  • Keep the number of questions to a bare minimum.
  • Make a space at the bottom, not on the back, for comments. Students rarely write comments if they have to turn the paper over.

In administering the questionnaire, I have found that these points are useful in getting the best results.

  • Explain carefully how the results will be used.
  • Anonymity for the students is essential. No names.
  • Explain how the questionnaire works. 
  • Ask a student to hand out the papers and collect them for you.
  • Leave the room while they are writing. 
  • Ask someone to hold the results for you until after the grades are in, and tell the students that is what will happen.
Once the term is finished, give the questionnaires a look. Here are some points that I use when evaluating the evaluations.
  • Throw out questionnaires that have only one number on the scale selected, for example all 3's. Odds are that the student didn't read the statements, especially if you include conflicting items as suggested above.
  • Look for trends, for example general satisfaction with your use of the first language.
  • Collect commonly occurring comments. For example on my most recent evaluation, some students pointed out that I didn't follow the syllabus. (They are right, and I'll have to do something about that next time.)
  • Ignore comments that ask for specific activities unless the requests interest you or form a common trend in student opinion. (For example, with courses for the community college, learners often request a unit on a specific grammar point or the use of certain materials. In my most recent evaluations, one student asked for vocabulary quizzes. I include these ideas if they are of interest to me, but otherwise do not consider these isolated responses.)
 Questionnaire style course evaluations are only one part of a comprehensive teacher development scheme, but they have served me well. When the university did challenge my teaching ability on the grounds that they had hired a "native speaker" to use English in class, I confidently countered with a request for research that showed that their all English classes would be more effective, and data from course evaluations that showed overwhelming student satisfaction with my use of Japanese in class. They have been an integral part of the evolution of my teaching practices over the years.


EFL Geek said...

Excellent post. However when I do this, I have the questions written in both Korean and English. I'm more interested in having students understand the question and provide me with valuable feedback then making it a test of their language skills.

Daniel said...

Yup, I know what you mean. That is a real consideration, and I don't have any idea about how many people respond incorrectly because they misunderstand. Good solution there.