A colleague of mine was dumbfounded after getting back students’ evaluations of her class at the end of the term. One of the items on the evaluation form (which came from the college administration) was:
- My instructor returned checked homework to me ____________.
- a) always quickly b) sometimes quickly c) not quickly
All of her students circled (a) “always quickly” except two Japanese students who circled (c) “not quickly.” This confused not only her, but also the rest of us who knew that she was especially diligent about checking assignments and returning them the very next class.
Why was there this disconnect between these students’ perception and reality?
Teacher evaluations by students
After getting these evaluations, as the program coordinator, I was able to follow up with interviews of her students. When I asked the Japanese students why they had indicated “not quickly,” they answered that the teacher was very serious about their homework and obviously spent a lot of time checking it. In other words, she didn’t just rush through and quickly check it.
When I asked them if she took a long time to return the homework to them, they answered that she always returned it the very next class, which impressed them.
After doing some research, I came up with a hypothesis for this misunderstanding. In Japanese, a word for “soon” and “quickly” is “hayaku.” So, in this feedback, these students may have been trying to say that the teacher returned papers soon.
I’ve also found that teacher evaluations seem to be quite rare in countries other than the U.S. In fact, during my 12 years of teaching in Japan, I never met an instructor at a Japanese college who told me that they had been evaluated by their students. This whole process might be such a foreign concept to international students that they don’t realize the seriousness of it. It’s not unusual to find international students marking every response with the “middle” choice. For example, if the scale for all the questions is from (5) Excellent to (3) OK to (1) Very bad, they will write “3” for every item.
Finally, unless the wording of the items is customized to the students’ reading level, the results can be totally misleading. After a class of lower-level ESL students had completed an evaluation form that had been written and administered by our college’s administration, I followed up by interviewing some of the students. Several of them admitted that they hadn’t understood the items but were embarrassed to admit it. So they just wildly guess at what was being asked. When I explain what the items were asking, they completely changed their responses.
Meaningful student feedback
I have found that the safest and most meaningful format to get students’ evaluation of a course/instructor are these simple items:
-Please write any opinion that you have about this course.
-Please write any opinion that you have about this teacher.