Friday, 11 September 2009

We Value your Feedback - Honest.

Somewhere it is written (by the Briddish Kyncel, probably) that feedback shall be elicited from English as a Foreign Language students at the end of their courses. This gives them the warm feeling that the institution is interested in their views. Did they but know with what shovelfuls of salt their feedback is taken, though, they probably wouldn’t waste time on completing the questionnaires, but repair at once to the cafeteria before it got too crowded to get a seat for lunch. I do not say this to criticise the institutions. The views of someone who is just passing through, knowing nothing about language teaching, are of little concern beyond the obvious one that she or he be as happy and diligent as possible within the system. It’s unlikely that any great changes would be made on the say-so of some twenty-year-old malcontent such as the puerile French twerp who has been getting on the wick of one of my young colleagues for the last five weeks with his arrogance and scorn for all things British. Everyone was asked to make a ten minute presentation on a topic of their choosing. 'Ten minoot?' Sebastien sneered, in gallic deprecation of the demeaning triviality of this requirement. He wanted to be exempt from it. 'In Fronce, I ave make a présentation for a hower!' Yeah, in French, though. Classic case here of heaping contempt on an undertaking because you don't feel equal to it. Anything you say in feedback will be taken down and passed round the staffroom for everyone to have a good guffaw at, before it is filed away in the dark for the rest of time.

The feedback ritual was duly observed today at Pre-Sessional’s end. I distributed the questionnaire after the final listening test, allowed time for its completion, collected it, stood smiling for group photographs, bade everyone farewell and bolted for the staffroom. The students in the group that I shared with a colleague had been quite happy, it seems. Only one had ticked ‘no’ for ‘did you enjoy the course?’ on the grounds that it had been ‘too much work’. Every teacher had instances of the kind of contradiction you always get in such feedback: there was too much work but there ought to have been more writing; listening is boring and there wasn’t enough of it; there was too much reading and we ought to have had more practice at reading. It's like moaning that the food in the cafeteria is lousy, and not only that, the portions are too small. One young lady had been displeased because the staff had shown insufficient concern for the recovery of her lost umbrella.

Eliciting feedback and expecting it to be wholly truthful before students have been given their grades and reports is a bit over-optimistic. It is common in some cultures for teachers to be swayed by flattery and deference and declarations of how they are the best teacher ever, but hell, dat don’t mean shit up hiya in dis bitch, motherfuckah: we’ll fail your essay if it’s crap no matter how many hearts and exclamation marks you slather on your feedback form, although admittedly it will have to be egregiously bad, truly a thing of darkness, before we’ll be allowed to do that. On the other hand, expecting students to fill in a feedback questionnaire after they’ve got their marks is even more unrealistic, as by then the teachers have served their purpose and become irrelevant.

Personal comments are obviously more interesting than ticked boxes. At another university, a young man from Thailand said to me 'I like your lessons because you’re not serious’. Yeah, well… I had to think about that. He meant it admiringly, but it still made me wonder if I had been perceived as a push-over. We often get overseas students telling us that we are the best teacher they have ever had. There need be no false modesty here, as people specifically trained as teachers of English as a Foreign Language to diploma level are a comparative rarity in world terms, so students accustomed to the lessons of irascible time-serving tediosities or twenty-year-old vivacities doing gap years are frequently impressed when taught by those having authority, and not as the scribes. The thought of what you are being compared with prevents your head from swelling.

The grades will be announced next week. Few need worry that they will not be accepted by their faculties. A marking system was devised that mapped percentages onto grades with such a wide middle ground that there was not much difference in the end between thirty six percent and sixty. The customer is as right as you can possibly make him.


Mark said...

Some 5 decades I was teaching in a super "high tone" highschool. There was a lot of talk back then--still is--about drugs. So the school administration decided to give a questionaire to the students about drug use.

The school had to call a community meeting for parents since over 65% of students reported weekly drug use. The community fainted en masse. Big news in the the two local newspapers.

I really wasn't surprised when the students in my class said "What did you expect us to say?"

Students almost collapsed in laughter. We never ran another survey.

vilges suola said...

Someone somewhere could do a PhD in the reliability or otherwise of student questionnaires. In language schools I have worked in they are simply cosmetic. I've never seen any changes made in response to any feedback.

What did you teach?


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