Peer level observation and a quality system for teaching

22 January 2010

We live in a world where quality standards are penetrating ever deeper into our lives, so much so that quality has become almost an everyday byword. In this respect, I would like to discuss some observations pertaining to quality in our sphere of teaching work.

Following several enjoyable and informative courses participated in over the past twelve months at one of Hamburg's popular further education establishments, I would like to pass on some observations and to point out the importance of the need for student feedback about their courses. I noticed that although the teachers were clearly highly skilled in their particular subjects, often classroom management techniques and the ability to make a clear presentation of the knowledge they wanted to impart should, and could easily be improved to the benefit of everyone. It seemed to me that a modern, student feedback quality system would help teachers improve their courses considerably.

As teachers, we all try to give our best in one way or another, so I feel that a formal course quality feedback system could help to provide information which is beneficial to the teacher, students and course managers, therefore everyone gains. Quality feedback has become an important part of my courses at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences - Is this a nuisance or a help? Without doubt, in my opinion it is a great help. At first there were anxieties of intrusion into one's teaching life, but as course evaluation by students became a 'must do' to enable the university to achieve its own quality accreditation, it was realised that teaching is perhaps a two-way thing, and that the students had a justified right to have a say in their education. Thus, the student feedback system has become normal procedure.

The double-sided tick box feedback form that the university students fill in anonymously at the end of each course is well structured and seeks to judge the many facets of a course, such as presentation style, teacher preparedness, courtesy and helpfulness to students, course content, use of multimedia, difficulty, time for preparation and assimilation, and not least, their interest. The form also has two boxes for students to give their personal comments on what they liked and disliked about the course, which I find very useful. The forms are collected and placed in an envelope, then sent to the quality department where they are rapidly scanned by a desktop machine. Within a day or so I receive a detailed, easily understandable analysis using various graphical plots of my performance on a scale of 1 - 5 of how well the students judged my course. Their personal comments are also converted from handwriting into print to maintain anonymity.

Could a quality system be evolved for our own courses? I have adopted the approach used by the university and adapted it to my other courses. I personally feel that when it is presented to the companies and organisations which engage me, both management and course participants have a clearer picture of the training provided and its progress, and of course such quality practices will gee-up we teachers to be ever-vigilant of the need to improve our own performance. Another beneficial function of these analyses could be to use them to promote one's teaching skills when seeking work.

An interesting aspect of being 'on the other side of the classroom' was that while I found myself thinking, 'the teacher shouldn't do that...', it occurred to me that I do 'that' sometimes too! This got me thinking about my own style of teaching and to carefully monitor myself for the 'faults' I had noticed, which may be a cautionary tale for our own members' teaching styles. Here are some of the things that were noticed on occasions, which are either needed or need to be improved:

Providing a schedule at the beginning of the course so that students know what will be covered and when; preparing well so that lessons flow smoothly, lectures are crisp, precise and clear; dwelling too long on an obvious point or constantly repeating it when once would suffice; speaking too softly or too quickly and slurring words; sentence endings fading away instead of being distinct, clear and audible; mumbling; allowing enough time for students to complete classroom exercises then writing the answers on the board to help weaker students; looking away from the students or at the floor or the board while talking to them; checking understanding with a doleful, pleading face instead of asking confidently with a smile, pausing briefly for any questions, then moving on; standing in front of a window, thus blinding the students so they only see a silhouetted black blob; searching and fumbling through notes, getting flustered if something cannot be found; using modern media to better explain things - a wall chart or a beamer presentation or a video can greatly enhance a lesson, saving time and increasing the students' interest - and ensuring that the media functions perfectly, each time!

Of course, language teaching is carried out in many, many forms, be it simple conversation groups, private one-to-ones, weekend seminars, small business English groups or whatever, besides the larger and more formal classes described above. But irrespective of which, I do believe that a well-structured, written, two-way student-teacher feedback analysis provides a better understanding of oneself, which enables us to give not only ever-improving and more interesting lessons, but alerts us to any falling off in our own performance.

Whether such a system would detract from a happy, fun group by bringing in formalities is an open question. Perhaps it is a trade-off between enjoyment and efficiency. Still, it's an interesting question. I am thinking about those people who were clearly or overtly disgruntled at the end of the course, those who did not stay to the end, and those who even walked out during the course. Each had their reasons, but had no recourse to complain - and they had paid for the courses themselves.

And what about my own experiences as a teacher sitting on the 'other side' as a student! Well, I will now become a lot more sympathetic to all those latecomers, excuses for not doing homework, being rather slow to complete exercises, disrupting lessons by whispering to neighbours in the classroom....

About: Lawrence has a qualification in Quality Techniques from Milton Keynes Open University.

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