Is Teaching Assessment by Students Valuable?

Is Teaching Assessment by Students Valuable?

After answering questions, I collected my books, rubbed the board, and got out of the class. I found Neelam waiting outside for me. I had invited her to attend one of my classes and provide feedback on my teaching.


Me: So. How did you find the class?
Neelam: What was it a class on? I mean which subject within philosophy?
Me: What? You sat through the whole lecture and couldn’t figure that out?
Neelam: How could I? You just spoke about parenting all the time. It could have been anything.
Me: It was a class on Ethics. I am taking a few classes of this first-year elective course for non-philosophy students. The class you sat through had freshmen from History, English, Physics, Economics, Mathematics, Sanskrit etc. This is perhaps their first course in Philosophy.
Neelam: What’s the reading list like?
Me: It’s very interesting. It has an assortment of articles on day-to-day, practical topics: poverty, inequality, privacy, pornography etc. I am discussing a couple of articles on marriage and parenting. I pity the philosophy students that they don’t get to do this course.
Neelam: And how’s it been?
Me: The articles are easy to read but the arguments are quite involved. I think this course is the best introduction to philosophy that one could get.
Neelam: No no. I mean the teaching. How’s your teaching going?
Me: You should be telling me that! Do I teach well? Am I a good teacher?
Neelam: Why don’t you ask your students? You could’ve had the class submit a teaching assessment form.
Me: I wanted to do that. I had prepared a form for them to fill, but then I didn’t give it to them.
Neelam: Why?
Me: I get only one lecture every week; so I’m always short of time in the class. That’s why I asked you to come and provide your feedback.
Neelam: That is no good reason. You could have distributed the form and asked students to fill it up at home. They could have submitted it later.
Me: Perhaps. But then there are other reasons why I could not, or rather did not ask them to give me a feedback.
Neelam: What reasons?
Me: I am not sure if students are the right population to seek a feedback from.
Neelam: What are you saying! You’ll get the best and most relevant feedback from your students! Their assessment of your teaching matters the most.
Me: Maybe it doesn’t. I’ve been thinking about it. Even the University does not require us to collect student feedbacks. There must be some reason.
Neelam: Our University doesn’t have a system of teaching assessment, but almost every other University does; in fact some universities don’t even disclose semester results to students until they submit their teaching assessment!
Me: That every other University is doing it doesn’t mean it is right. Why should you think that assessment of teachers by the students is of any value?
Neelam: Shouldn’t it be obvious? They are the end consumers of teaching instruction. Their assessment of teaching matters the most!
Me: I am not very comfortable with this idea of looking at students as consumers. We treat students as customers just because they pay the fees. Universities conduct teaching assessments just like corporations conduct customer satisfaction surveys. All this doesn’t go well with me.
Neelam: That’s a mistaken analogy. Teaching assessments are not customer satisfaction surveys. The point of teaching assessment is to facilitate communication from students to the teachers. Through such assessment, students can tell the teachers what they like in their teaching and what they don’t; so that teachers may improve their instruction.
Me: That’s exactly the point of customer surveys! Corporations seek to know whether their customers like their product; so that they might modify it to suit customer preferences.
Neelam: I don’t see how you can compare the two. The university is not a commercial place.
Me: But then the very idea of teaching assessment by the students seems motivated by the commercial notion of customer satisfaction.
Neelam: Wait. I think there’s a verbal disagreement between us. We are using the same words, but it seems that we understand different things by them.
Me: Which words?
Neelam: Teaching assessment by students.  Tell me what this idea means to you.
Me: The idea of students assessing teachers and their teaching?
Neelam: Yes.
Me: Well. As I said, to me the whole idea of teaching assessment by students seems misplaced. It is modeled upon the commercial notion that customers must be satisfied.
Neelam: Yes. I heard that. But you need to elaborate.
Me: Of course. It is a sad truth that we have started looking at Universities as businesses and students as customers. So the idea goes: students pay money to the Universities, which is used to pay salaries to teachers, maintain infrastructure, and in some cases, earn profits etc.
Neelam: So?
Me: So just like a corporation, the University must keep its customers i.e. the students satisfied; because if the University doesn’t do that, it risks losing business. Hence, the University continually collects feedback from students and brings changes to suit student preferences. This seems to me to be the philosophy behind assessment of teachers by the students.

What is the value of teacher assessment by students?

Neelam: And what’s so bad about it?
Me: Everything! Universities are not businesses. The aim of the University is to impart education and not to keep the students happy and satisfied.
Neelam: Won’t good education keep students happy and satisfied?
Me: Hopefully yes. But the problem is that even bad or misleading education might make them happy and satisfied.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Me: Generally speaking, students cannot be expected to know the difference between good and bad. In fact, the very point of the University is to give them such knowledge.  It is the outcome, not the pre-requisite of education – especially humanities education – that students know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad. Hence students cannot differentiate between good education and bad education either. They are not qualified for that.
Neelam: You dodged my question. How can bad education satisfy the students?
Me: Isn’t it possible that a teacher who focuses on befriending students instead of teaching them get loved by them? The teacher might gossip about the lives of others, court students outside the class, or otherwise charm them. Such a person might be an object of affection despite not being a good teacher. Can’t such a person succeed in keeping the students happy and satisfied despite actually being a terrible teacher?
Neelam: Perhaps it’s possible.
Me: And isn’t it possible that a teacher who doesn’t require students to work hard, gives easy assignments, and marks them liberally get loved by students for this very same reason? In fact, liberal marking one of the tools bad teachers use to mask their own incompetence. Students cannot always spot such subtle manipulation.
Neelam: Hmmm.
Me: Yet others might use rhetoric to impress students. If someone speaks loudly, clearly, and slowly, people tend to believe what is said irrespective of whether it is true. Students might fall prey to kind and flattering words.
Neelam: I agree.
Me: On the contrary, some teachers whom the students find terrible and utterly dissatisfying may still deliver extraordinary education. When I was a student, everyone in my class hated the classics teacher. His instruction was utterly unhelpful in making us understand the text. And when we told him of our problem he admitted with a bald face that he didn’t understand the text either, so he can’t help us. But I realize now that in admitting his own ignorance he was imparting the biggest education Plato had to offer.
Neelam: I get what you are saying.
Me: How the teacher impresses upon the mind of the student is no reliable indicator of the quality of education. Teaching assessment collects exactly that:impression of the teacher in the mind of the student. Thus, even bad teachers might receive a positive assessment, and good teachers might receive negative. Teaching assessment by students might bring about changes in a teacher’s instruction, but it cannot be expected to help improve it.
Neelam: I get you point. And now I am wondering if it is correct.
Me: Students are not qualified to assess the education they receive. My worry is that if we measure the quality of instruction on the basis of student assessment, and if we link the promotion and perks of teachers with student assessments, then unscrupulous teachers who manipulate students to win their approval will come out on the top.
Neelam: You think of students as too naïve and gullible!
Me: I am not saying that. I am just saying that students occupy a particularly vulnerable position in the classroom vis-à-vis the teacher; and such position puts them at disadvantage.
Neelam: What do you mean?
Me: Look. Students enter the university because they seek education, not because they already possess it. Had they already possessed it, they could have been in a position to judge the instruction of the teacher. So students can’t tell if they are being given the right instruction. It is only in retrospect that students realize whether the instruction was good or not.
Neelam: Okay.
Me: And while they are being instructed, the mannerism, behavior, and personality of the teacher impress upon the student more than the instruction itself.
Neelam: Okay. So?
Me: This puts the students in a particularly vulnerable spot. Despite delivering bad instruction a teacher might still make the students feel happy and satisfied by manipulating them with pleasant mannerisms, charming personality, agreeable behavior, or through other theatrics.
Neelam: Hmmm.
Me: And then, some students just want good marks; which a bad teacher is more than happy to give in order to win their approval.
Neelam: I get your point. You’re saying that students are not qualified to judge good education from bad, and that their vulnerable position prevents them from providing an objective, correct feedback.
Me: Yes. You summarize it well.
Neelam: Do you have more to add?
Me: Not now. Why?
Neelam: My idea of teaching assessment by students is quite different from yours. And now that I know what I understand by it, I can see where you went wrong.
Me: What do you mean?
Neelam: Well I think you’ve made some unwarranted assumptions, confused some concepts, and that your conclusion doesn’t follow from the considerations you present.
Me: You seem to have listed all shortcomings an argument could possibly have! But your criticism is far too abstract for me. You need to explain more.
Neelam: Well, to begin with, I do not share your assumption that Universities aim at keeping their students happy and satisfied. Of course the University would want the students to be happy and satisfied, but it nevertheless exists for a greater purpose: to impart education.
Me: Okay. But what’s your argument?
Neelam: Well. We all want to pass our examinations. That makes us happy. Why would a University fail anyone in an exam if its primary purpose was just to make students happy?
Me: Haha. Okay.
Neelam: And then if all that the University wanted was to keep the students happy and satisfied, they’d have built spas and ice-cream parlors in the campus instead of classrooms.
Me: I guess everyone will prefer that!
Neelam: I think no-one will. If all that the students wanted was to feel happy and satisfied, they’d go on a holiday, an ice-cream parlor, go watch a movie, or play some sport. Why would they bother enrolling in the University?
Me: I get your point, but I guess you’re responding to a strawman; not to what I said.
Neelam: Where did I go wrong in reading your argument?
Me: What I meant was Universities seek to keep students happy and satisfied with their education, not happy and satisfied in general.
Neelam: Ok. So do you agree now that your analogy comparing a university with a corporation was mistaken?
Me: No I don’t. You have not given me any reasons why that analogy should be mistaken! Look, we can think of the University as a corporation which sells education as its product. And it gets its teachers assessed by its customers, i.e. the students. The aim of assessment is to keep the customers happy and satisfied with the education. The Analogy is perfect.
Neelam: So you’re saying that the aim of teaching assessment is to make the students happy and satisfied with their education, right?
Me: Yes.
Neelam: And what’s wrong with that?
Me: I don’t understand why you’re making me repeat my argument. The problem is that student’s happiness and satisfaction with their education does not indicate whether the education is good education. Students may very well feel satisfied upon receiving bad education.
Neelam: Okay then. I think your point is that students can’t judge whether the education they receive is good or bad because they do not already possess knowledge of the domain that they study.
Me: Yes. While a professional mathematician can judge whether mathematics instruction delivered in class is correct, students cannot. And while a trained historian can tell whether a teacher is presenting correct historical facts, students cannot. Students do not possess the professional expertise, hence they can’t provide feedback only professionals are capable of. And because I wanted to get feedback on whether I am doing a good job teaching philosophy, I asked you to attend one of my classes. That’s why I did not ask my students to submit a feedback; they are just not qualified.
Neelam: I see. This is where we differ in our understanding.
Me: Understanding of what?
Neelam: Teaching assessment by students. I understand something very different from these words. Unlike you, for me the aim of teaching assessment is not to gather student’s opinion on teacher’s domain knowledge.
Me: Then what is the aim?
Neelam: The aim is to gather feedback on the style of teacher’s instruction; though I don’t wish to say it is the only aim. Once in a while, a bright student might provide good feedback on teacher’s domain knowledge as well.
Me: What do you mean by style of instruction?
Neelam: Listen. It is possible for a teacher to know her subject very well, yet be very bad at teaching. That a person is good in, say, mathematics does not mean the same person is good at teaching mathematics as well.
Me: How so?
Neelam: Because her style of teaching might not be good. She might speak too fast or too slow; or in too high or too low a tone. Worse, she might not speak in the same language as the students.
Me: You’re distorting my argument. I agree that student’s feedback on these issues is important. But if the teacher enters the class and starts speaking in a foreign language, students can point it out then and there in the class! Just to communicate such trivial points about teaching style, there is no need to devise the heavy machinery of teaching assessment.
Neelam: Issues related to teaching style might not always be trivial. The teacher might not be using examples while explaining difficult concepts. She might not be responding well to questions. She might be getting irritated when students take time to grasp a difficult concept. Her pet-phrases might be distracting. These are not trivial issues. If one is serious about teaching, then one ought to take these issues seriously too.
Me: Hmmm.
Neelam: Not just that. Even close friends find it difficult to communicate such things to each other. And then, people don’t always respond well to criticism. Thus it is important to have a system of confidential and systematic assessments to secure the students.
Me: I got your point. Assessment of the teacher by her students is not an evaluation of her domain knowledge, but her style of teaching.
Neelam: Yes. So regarding today, even I cannot comment on whether what you spoke in the class was correct because I have not read the article that you discussed. But while sitting in your class I did feel that you can improve your style of teaching a lot.
Me: Oh really? How?
Neelam: You focus a lot on reproducing the argument it its full detail and glory, which is sometimes good. But then, that tends to make your lecture dry and boring. I found many students talking amongst themselves or fiddling with their phones. A few were taking notes frantically, but I am not sure whether they understood what you said; you were going just too fast.
Me: Oh.
Neelam: Yes. That’s what I found. Try to bring variations in your style, use the board more often, try diagramming arguments, and engage with students more. And to make sure that students are following you, punctuate your lecture with questions addressed to the students.
Me: Thanks for the input. I shall think about it.
Neelam: You are welcome. But that is just my opinion, and I am not your student. Such inputs must come from your students, not me. It is them who need to be comfortable with your style of instruction. They are the end consumers of your instruction. You’ll know better only when you collect feedback from your students.
Me: I guess I should begin doing that.
Neelam: You must.
Me: But Neelam, I have a doubt. While I can agree with you when you say that collecting & implementing student’s feedback might help a person get better understood in class and be more acceptable to the students; I am not sure whether it can ensure that the person becomes a good teacher..
Neelam: What makes you unsure?
Me: Consider me, for example. How do I know that adopting student’s feedback on my teaching style would actually improve my teaching and not merely change it to their liking?
Neelam: I don’t understand your doubt, Nikhil.
Me: How can we simply assume that students are qualified to comment on a teacher’s style? Students don’t have degrees in education. Why should their opinion – on which style of teaching is good and which not – matter?
Neelam: But then, generally speaking, college teachers don’t possess degrees in education either; they mostly come trained only in their own specialized domains.
Me: You didn’t address my question. Leave aside the qualification of the teacher for a moment. Give me reasons why should the opinion of students matter.
Neelam: Well. I guess their opinion matters because students are specially placed to judge the style of teaching.
Me: Specially placed in what sense?
Neelam: When teachers teach, they occupy their own personal perspective: i.e. the perspective from behind the teacher’s desk. Through assessments, they gain the perspective from the benches too. Student assessments give teachers access to a wide variety of opinions on their style of teaching, which might improve their teaching.
Me: I don’t get it. Even if we agree that feedback from the students makes available opinions from a wide variety of perspectives, we can’t be sure those opinions are right opinions. For all I know, students will want only such changes which make them comfortable. That some style of teaching finds favor with the students doesn’t mean that that style is right.
Neelam: Wouldn’t the best instruction make the students feel comfortable as well?
Me: Not necessarily. Student comfort is overrated because we’ve begun to look at them as customers. So we mistake comfortable instruction to be good instruction.
Neelam: That’s counter-intuitive! If students don’t feel comfortable, how can they learn well?
Me: Well, at least in some disciplines the discomfort of students seems to aid learning. For example, teaching grammar to students require the teacher to be strict and punctilious. But then, we all feel uncomfortable in the company of a carping, caviling person. Look at our own discipline. Philosophy students often dislike their teachers for being so uncertain and skeptical about everything. But I’d say that this style suits philosophy best.
Neelam: I don’t know if your examples are apt; and you seem to be playing with the meaning of ‘comfortable’. But then, that’s not important for our discussion. Your argument only shows that student’s opinion on the style of teacher’s instruction need not necessarily be the right opinion; But it doesn’t show that their opinion is wrong either. Teacher assessment makes  a variety of opinions on her style of teaching available before the teacher. She may use such opinions to improve their teaching. This is where the value of teaching assessment lies in.
Me: So you agree that to improve her teaching and be able to deliver good education, a teacher cannot just collect and implement student opinions. Neither does teaching assessment by students serve as a good evaluation of teacher’s actual instruction or abilities. Student opinions are just some ideas and proposals that might help her improve.
Neelam: Yes. It was obvious to me since the very beginning. Anonymity brings out the worst in people. Students often write crazy and irrelevant things in their assessment forms. Not all of them are important. Also, it is not necessary, perhaps not even likely for all students of the class to hold the same opinion on the teacher’s teaching style. Some might like it, others might not. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of teacher assessment a bit. These assessments give access to a repository of new ideas.
Me: Of course. I agree. But now I feel bothered by something else.
Neelam: What bothers you?
Me: The very point of my asking you to come and attend my class was to know whether I teach well. I want to become a good teacher and so I need some opinion on how to improve. Now when we’ve settled that collecting assessments from students will only give me opinions on my style of teaching; I was wondering how I could know the truth about whether I teach well. And I was wondering how I could get some true opinions on how to improve.
Neelam: If you want to know whether you teach well, you should probably first find out what makes a good teacher. If you teach the way good teachers do, you’d be a good teacher as well. If not, you’ll know how to improve by comparing your teaching with that of good teachers.
Me: And rather than asking students or someone else, why don’t we talk and find out what makes a good teacher? I am scheduled to begin my logic class in the next five minutes. If you don’t mind, shall we resume our conversation in a couple of hours?
Neelam: Sure. Give me a call when you get free. Where shall we meet?
Me: Science Dhaba. 12:30AM.


I rush towards my class

2 Replies to “Is Teaching Assessment by Students Valuable?”

  1. I might be wrong but I found it problematic to imagine who shall have the authority to call a teacher good or from whose perspective you Admit a teacher to be good? I thought that students should have the authority.

  2. To decide if a teacher is good or not , you need to see what you call as teaching and when and how it becomes good and for who and from whose perspective. Further, what you call good is teleological or absolute is again a matter of division. I think so! The Socratic way of teaching is most helpful in intellectual development of a child but I am apprehensive of its value in job market. If merely delivering what you know is to be called teaching then robots may soon replace teachers. I have my apprehensions.

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