What Formalized Feedback Is Good For…

Today my teaching was evaluated.

It was pretty nerve-wracking, really, knowing that it was coming. I think I was maybe second or third, though I’d thought beforehand that I was first. I didn’t think much about the relative benefits (real or imagined) of being first, or not, but it was nonetheless nerve-wracking.

Well, my supervisor qualified his evaluation pretty heavily beforehand, saying it was just one person’s opinion of one class session on one day—for he did it alone, and only during my 4:30pm class today. And sure, I got to choose which class he would evaluate—naturally, my best class, as everyone was choosing their best group.

Honestly, I will admit that, knowing the evaluation was coming, I made a slightly more self-conscious effort to evaluate the various teaching methods I used, the exercises and so on, but to be honest, I didn’t do anything different from what I normally do. It was pretty much a regular session for that particular class.

Which means that there were moments when I was in control of the whole group, as well as moments when the students were working in pairs and, aurally, the room was utter chaos, while I engaged with pairs one by one. I was a little self-conscious about that, but then again that’s basically what I do and I’d rather be evaluated on what I do, and be offered some other strategies if it’s not working.

Well, perhaps it actually is working. The feedback I got was quite positive, really. There was only one rating which was less than I hoped, and that was pertaining to my method of correction—something I have been thinking about lately anyway. So I am pretty pleased with this: it means that, perhaps, I have somewhat fewer blind spots in the classroom than I sometimes imagine.

And the end result of this? I’ve been thinking about the role of evaluative procedures in the classroom. I think I don’t test my students enough, which is why lately I’ve been surprising them with spot quizzes. These are oral quizzes, mind you, mainly me asking them to perform conversations of the kind we’ve practiced recently and which I’ve explicitly assigned—one might say I warned—them to practice together before next class.

I remember when my friend Seong Hwan was my student for a little while. I asked him what I was doing wrong with the class, for it was a low-level class that was struggling with things like motivation. HE told me that they needed tests; they needed to be tested periodically. At the time, I thought about that negatively: “But they’ve chosen to take the class? Why can’t they self-motivate? And why should I test when it’s not a credit-based class? How silly!” And how silly of me! I even went to the point of deciding that perhaps it was a case of the students being so conditioned by the Korean education system (which is full of standardized tests) that they couldn’t learn without having tests thrown at them.

But isn’t it basically human to want feedback? And doesn’t feedback—the weakening fear of maybe doing terribly (something one staff member was reporting feeling even though he’d been doing this work for five years and knows what he is doing) a powerful incentive to try really hard to do well? And isn’t the compassionate encouragement of the evaluator who is much less harsh on you than you imagine, the experience of doing something and having those moments when you’re painfully aware of your weaker points—help you think out what you need to improve or make you think about how you could do something better?

If you think about it that way, evaluations and feedback are really a kind of clever psychological trick or ritual one can use on people to extract better work from them, which is probably why practically every workplace in the world uses them. But for me today, the object lesson is this: that it can also be used on students, and it ought to be, more often than I use it anyway.

6 thoughts on “What Formalized Feedback Is Good For…

  1. In my eleven years of teaching EFL I have been observed less than half a dozen times. I invite people into my class to observe. I encourage peer-observation.But, nobody bloody does it! :o)

    Seriously though. Part of learner training or learner awareness should be that they expect to be evaluated all the time. I usually keep a running record of my students and give them feedback at least twice in the month asking them to pay particular attention to certain problem areas. Suggesting where they might practice a little more ( the “net…a tefl teacher“s bestest friend). I dislike formal testing intensely, but I understand the rationale behing it. And try to use it as effectively as possible. Diagnostic evaluation is the best because it often shows up a student“s weak area. Also asking someone in to observe the students as well is a good idea, as a new pair of eyes and ears can often pick up things that you are missing.

    There are two very good books about testing that you might like to look at:
    “Techniques in testing” Harold S Madsen -Oxford University Press(1983)
    “Language Testing” Tim McNamarra -Oxford University Press (2000)
    They helped me a lot

    By the way. Don“t prepare you students before any informal evaluation as it skews the results. Just a suggestion. :o))

  2. I guess we are all afraid of testing, because it might lead to criticism or failure. However, we can’t improve unless we know what we are doing wrong, be it the teacher or the student.

    Nice blog you have here. Interesting reading.

  3. Yeah, feedback is important for everyone. Hmmm. Anyway, I always try to urge my conversation class students to be willing to make mistakes, and embrace them as the most important things that help them learn. Mistakes show what you need to practice. But of course our human egoes are so fragile… for some, so fragile they’d rather not even try, even when they see me occasionally mangling their language beyond belief.

    Thanks! I hope you enjoyed it to come back again. :)

    Oops, I wanted to clarify, I prepped myself for that class, not the students. All they knew was that someone was coming to class the next time, and that was it. Didn’t change their behaviour one iota, in fact; the two slackers in the back still slacked off, and the girls on the left side of the room still teased one another momentarily during exercises, and so on.

  4. Gord, you can get those books at Kyobo – I bought other testing books when I took the testing and assessment unit in my Masters program. And if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for http://global.yesasia.com has an excellent selection of linguistics oriented books with free shipping to Korea.

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