Learning Curve: student surveys can help in assessing a teacher's skills

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 9:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 7:01pm

Each year when the IB results are declared, I am witness to a spectrum of emotions that span from elation to unhappiness.

And each year there are a few students who express incredulous shock at the number of points they have attained. Although I haven't done any correlational analysis, it seems each year some of the students who have been predicted to get poor grades are genuinely surprised when they get them.

Although test scores in any examination system can reveal the extent to which students have mastered course content as reflected by the number of points or grades they have achieved, they do not reveal why students have not learned.

Students seldom accept that the poor mark could be attributed to insufficient application and exam preparation. Often, parents of underperforming students express dissatisfaction and disappointment with the school or specific subject teachers, invariably the ones which students have attained low marks in.

Perhaps student evaluation of teachers could have some validity. They are the first-hand witnesses to what goes on in a classroom on a daily basis.

Schools generally don't use student evaluation surveys to ascertain teaching competencies, and there is contentious debate among teachers themselves whether students should be allowed to evaluate teachers.

Classroom observation is one way in which school administration routinely evaluates the proficiency of teachers.

On the other hand, student evaluation, remuneration and tenure are inextricably linked in tertiary education.

The faculty handbook of Rice University in Houston, Texas, states that reviews of tenured professors and normal yearly reviews of untenured professors are generally based on internal evaluations of research, teaching and service, and involve departmental chairs' reports to deans.

But the viability of data obtained from student surveys depends upon the questions in the survey, the methodology with which it was administered, and what professors choose to do with the information.

Some studies show a correlation between student learning and higher ratings given to professors, while others report that some professors inflate grades to get favourable ratings.

So can teachers be evaluated reliably to ensure that teaching improves?

A three-year study called the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says it is possible to identify and promote great teaching in schools by combining all three types of measures: classroom observations (averaging observations from more than one observer, such as another school administrator or a peer observer), student surveys, and student achievement gains.

The report concludes that "this balanced approach has two important advantages: ratings are less likely to fluctuate from year to year, and the combination is more likely to identify teachers with better outcomes on assessments other than the state tests".

The MET study used the Tripod survey assessments developed and refined by Ronald Ferguson, senior lecturer in education and public policy at Harvard University, to gather information regarding student perceptions of effective teaching.

The MET study has shown Ferguson's survey results to be a valid and reliable predictor of student learning in maths and ELA - in fact, more reliable than administrators' classroom observations of teachers.

The 30-minute survey with which students evaluated their teachers was developed around seven dimensions that measured how much the teacher "Cares, Controls, Clarifies, Challenges, Captivates, Confers and Consolidates".

Ferguson's survey shows that teaching effectiveness is truly multidimensional, and the five statements that most correlated with student learning were:

1. students in this class treat the teacher with respect;
2. my classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to;
3. our class stays busy and doesn't waste time;
4. in this class, we learn a lot almost every day;
5. in this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

Ferguson concludes that "student perceptions of classroom practice can help in predicting learning outcomes and should be taken seriously by policymakers and educators".

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School