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November 16, 2005

When Students Evaluate their English Instructor

ESL Student Evaluating ESL Teacher.jpg

"There are four ways, and only four ways, in which we have contact with the world. We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it." ~ Dale Carnegie

It's that time of the semester again: the end! Student evaluations of the teacher! You know, have a fellow teacher come into the room for 15 minutes, hand out #2 pencils and multiple choice grade sheets while you go do the same for another “strange” class. It seems so mundane yet so much might be hanging in the balance with the pencil scratches of those students.

Are you like me, wondering what your students are going to say about you now that you are out of the room? Do you expect the ones who expect to get "As" to give you high marks while the ones who know their grade is in danger to score you, in retaliation, with a negative evaluation score?

And, don't get me started on websites like "rate-my-teacher" or "rate-my-professor." There, teachers are actually marked according to whether or not they are "hot" and not on their ability to teach (winners get a chilli-pepper while the other poor saps don't!) We might begin to wonder at a student's capability to fairly evaluate a professional instructor.

On the other hand, as Seton Hill's Dr. Arnzen pointed out in a post on Pedablogue:

Students (esp Freshman) aren't really skilled in evaluating teachers -- and yet, perhaps they are to some degree because they've been studying teaching as much as course content their whole lives.

I also came across a post on Patricia Dean's blog here called "A Model for Evaluation" at ESL School a short time ago as I began to verbalize these ideas.

As a teacher, I appreciated her comments about the students' course evaluations. However, I can't help but think about the old "bigger business" is > than "educational standards" equation that we must concede exists in many ESL schools abroad.

It reminds me of my own ESL experiences overseas, with some ESL schools that is, where the song-and-dance-routine ESL teachers always seemed to fare better with their students' evaluation of them than the brick-n-mortar types who actually tried to teach the course agenda. As a result, the winners of the popularity contest were often asked to return the following semesters while others, who were sometimes far better educators, were asked to leave because the students simply "couldn't have fun" with them.

Sometimes these teachers were turning out students who couldn't perform satisfactorily on the practice TOEFEL exams, for example, but DID sign up for the same ESL school the next semester. By the same token, I actually saw where sometimes the classes that did do quite well on their practice CAE/CPE exams didn't return to the school because they heard through the grapevine that another school had teachers that took their students to parks and the pubs for lessons, etc. Perhaps I'm only speaking from my own experience, but I found the whole evaluation process disheartening rather than an encouraging opportunity to find out where I excelled and where I needed to improve (in order to get my ESL students to learn more/better). Most of my colleagues, understandably, absolutely dreaded this entire process when the time came around.

I realize that the situation with some private ESL schools is that the owners sometimes have to play to multiple sides of an issue: potential ESL students want the best price for an ESL class in town, the funniest ESL teacher they've ever had and, or course, the best education too. Even my own present institution (a state university) brands itself with hilarious and, some say, contradictory "quality-affordability-excellence." We are particularly proud of the boldly vague and trite marketing concept of "excellence!"

Sometimes, it seems, a few of those "qualities" are bound to conflict with the others. For example, with cheaper tuitions come the possibility of having to pay the teachers less leading (sometimes) to lower-quality teachers. With that in mind, how seriously can hiring committees really take student evaluations when, very often, many of them will just tick every box for "very satisfied" on the teacher that told the funniest jokes and "very dissatisfied" for the teacher that gave them homework. Shouldn't peer-review teacher observations perhaps count for more (or at least as much as) than student observations?

Would be interested to hear the thoughts of other ESL instructors out there on my "rant" of the day.

Until we rant again,

Lee Hobbs
ESL Instruct, Editor-in-Chief
ESLemployment.com

Posted by lhobbs at November 16, 2005 01:13 AM

Readers' Comments:

Interesting post Lee. I read a related post over here at Mike Arnzen's blog related to student evaluations. You can check the link here @ http://blogs.setonhill.edu/MikeArnzen/008234.html

"I personally think those college kids doing evals on professors is pretty bogus. I mean first you have to expect them to be sober...second you got to expect them to be awake during class...I mean the students are just tryign to bolt out of class to grab the next brew anyway. Are they really qualified to hold the future of the profs life and career in their hands?"

Posted by: Jason Chazy at November 16, 2005 04:03 AM

Personally I think the admin's should evaluate the teachers, have the most say in the matter. Most ESL students can't even really speak english, let alone evaluate. they have horrible grammer, punctioation. they can't spell, worth a lick. But they definately should be able to evaluate to some extent so they bring down these teachers a peg, effect weather they get a promotion or not. Teachers nowa days are too full of themselves I think in the private ESL school scene. Its really about for them slamming there co-workers and employers and not the job, i.e. going onto a forum and blacklisting their school they work at.

Posted by: ESL Nerd at November 16, 2005 06:02 AM

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Note from Lee:

Thanks so much Jason for that excellent observation on student evaluations of instructors from Mike Arnzen's blog. There were definitely some fine points made there.

Posted by: Lee at November 17, 2005 12:37 AM

Mr. ESL Nerd

Get your own grammar, spelling , and punctuation right before slating that of EFL students! And as for teachers being full of themselves - some of us really do know what we're on about, and even native speakers could learn a thing or two.

Karin

Posted by: Karin at December 22, 2005 07:15 PM

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Note from Lee:

Sorry ESL Nerd but I have to agree with Karin on this one; thanks for that. ESL Nerd, we must first learn to be tolerant and then learn to cast out the log from our own eyes before pointing out the shortcomings of others. Why so bitter anyway: did Santa bring you a lump of coal for Christmas?

Posted by: Lee at December 22, 2005 07:23 PM

ESL Folks:

I taught Spanish language for 5 years at a major American University where the most important criteria for contract renewal was student evaluations. For the most part students were quite mature and fair, but I was lucky because the University was very competitive and students expected to be challenged.

A colleague and friend of mine moved from this selective college to a less demanding one this year. After years of good evaluations at the tough school, in just one semester he was dismissed from the easier one. His students murdered him on his evaluations for a simple reason: his class was hard.

This situation pointed out the hypocrisy of many institutions that claim they want to raise standards, but then fire teachers who raise them. On the other hand, universities are in a tough position because in the end they are businesses that need to attract and retain clients - the students.

This will be a constant dilemma in the teaching world. My advice to teachers who are running into problems with evaluations: remember that if your class is boring it doesnt matter how "good" you are, because your students wont be motivated or interested. And if it comes down to lowering your standards or getting fired, think about if its really worth it to you to lose your job in your crusade for high standards.

Justin

Posted by: Justin at December 30, 2005 04:44 AM

Lee,

1. Self-evaluation at the end of every class (just takes a few minutes and lots of examples of self-evaluation programmes all over the place)

2.Class (students) evaluation at the end of every week or two weeks at most, that way no surprises at the end of the period of teaching [term, semester etc] and will also lead to consistent evaluation on the part of the students - students need to practice at being evlauators)

3. Administrators/co-ordinators evaluate at least once during a three month period, so they know what's going on - or not!

4. External evaluation when possible

5. Evaluation training for teachers, students and co-ordinators stressing the importance of evaluation as well as giving those involved the necessary skills etc.

Allan

Posted by: Allan at December 30, 2005 08:08 PM

Lee,

I understand exactly what you mean with "potential ESL students want the best price for an ESL class in town, the funniest ESL teacher they've ever had and, or course, the best education too".

I worked at a school that promissed students would be able to "speak the language" after three months!!! I was evaluated by the students and also by staff members (not other teachers), sometimes the boss himself would pop in and listen to the class.

This made the students incredibly nervous, so they routinely made more mistakes than usual (very bad for me :( ). I was reprimanded several times by my boss for not being "entretaining enough", even though I had my students play a short game or sing almost every day.

I was also told that I did not prepare the students enough for the short weekly quizzes (made up of 5 questions), because they did not complete the weekly program. With games and singing and only a 45-minute class there was just not enough time left to cover the matterial for the day. Now how could I do that if I had to play with them?? The students did not want any homework either, but I assigned it anyway, to no avail.

It is true that they say the best way of learning is by playing, but sometimes you have to learn the rules of the game first (in this case, grammar, structure, spelling etc.) before you can actually play.

By the way, the students I am talking about were all adult, university graduates. You would think they, as opposed to gradeschool students, would be more used to the notion of having to study in order to learn without having to be constantly riminded of it. I guess I was wrong there...LOL.

One refreshing note however, not all students were like that. Some of the students were parents of gradeschool kids who were actually learning English to be able to help their kids with their homework, and it turns out their kids sometimes were a great asset as well since they also helped their parents practice at home. I thought that was so cool!!!

I wish you and everyone else who reads this a very happy 2006!!!

Alexa

Posted by: Alexa at December 30, 2005 11:20 PM

Lee,

Wow, you hit it right on the nose.

The best entertainers make the best teachers according to the students.

So much for those who really teach the course work.

Yea

Posted by: yea at December 31, 2005 06:50 AM

Lee,

In my experience many adult learners of English tend to have unrealistic goals (if they have any at all) and lack responsibility for their own learning (in that they have not consciously thought out their own learning strategy).

If a learner does not experience success by the end of the term, then it is often the case that it is the fault of the school, the learning materials and the teacher.

Adult learners seem to judge the competence of their teacher on the basis of previous learning experiences. If they have had "traditional" teachers in the past (by "traditional" I mean those teachers who stand at the front and exert more control over the learning process), they would tend to take a dislike to alternative approaches (because these approaches are unfamilar and people tend to fear the unknown).

Teacher evaluations do not seem to reflect the truth whether a teacher is competent or not. Rather, these evaluations tend to show a particular students' like or dislike of a person, irrespective of that particular person's credentials, experience and success, etc.

Personality seems to have an enormous impact in the classroom. Since people are different personality clashes within the classroom are inevitable (even between teachers and students). If the class consists of mainly introverts, for instance, an extroverted personality may cause offense to some.

These are just some of my thoughts based on experience. I might be mistaken in my perception of the issues.

RevRave

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Note from Lee:

Thanks RevRave for sharing your experiences on this blog. I'd love to hear your remarks for some of my other entries!

Posted by: RevRave at January 1, 2006 06:20 AM

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