A curious piece in the SCMP the other day by Prof. Sun Kwok, who is the Dean of Science at the University of Hong Kong. Much of this was about matters so specialised to university teaching that you wondered why the editors had been willing to run it. The headline provided, “Teachers shouldn’t strive to be their students’ best friends”, offered a whiff of illicit erotica which was not present in the article. It was actually was a sustained attack on the teaching evaluation system whereby students are invited at the end of the course to give some formal feedback on what they thought of it.
Prof. Sun’s approach to this matter illustrated two permanent features of university life: the complete indifference of academics to academic research about their own activities, and their total failure to apply to the day-to-day management of their activities the sort of intellectual rigour which one hopes they apply to their scholarly activities. Teaching evaluations by students are well-known to have some features which call for care and sophistication when they are being interpreted as a sign of teaching quality.
Nobody, one hopes, is dumb enough simply to take an average score as the end of the matter. Indeed having vented his prejudices about bribery and students preferring the easy and familiar Prof. Sun indicates some willingness to look at the scores and their distribution for a more complex picture. He is also, like most of us, interested in the comments which are provided along with the scores. Still, it is a bit disturbing that someone in his senior position is basically disposed to dismiss his only source of student feedback as the product of corruption and idleness. Compared with other sources of information the students have one unique advantage: they have been in the classroom while the teaching was going on. The alternatives to formal feedback are informal feedback and informal feedback relayed by third parties. Or to put it shortly: gossip.
Prof. Sun disputes this. He says he can tell which teachers are good and which are not. He looks at contributions to curriculum development, suggestions for teaching methods, developing demonstrations and participation in student academic activities. These are all activities outside the classroom. They do not necessarily indicate a talent for teaching. Prof. Sun is dallying with a well-known psychological quirk, the illusion that people’s qualities are more consistent and congruent than they really are. There also seems to be a risk that ambitious faculty members will be more assiduous in activities which are clearly visible to their Dean than in those which are only visible to their students.
He says that “peer observations” are a better way to judge teaching quality than “numerical schemes”. But there are no peer observations inside Hong Kong classrooms. University teachers never watch each other’s work. Peer observation is a euphemism for gossip, or good performance, in the committee room.
I have collected a lot of teaching evaluations in my time. Some of them were very nice. I once had to tell a class that they should not put things like “we all love Tim” in the comments sections because this might be misinterpreted. I also have occasionally had comments which were so cutting that they caused me acute anxiety for months about whether I was doing the right thing. But, on the whole, I find people who complain about the system are those who consistently get low scores, and I do wonder if perhaps Prof. Sun is reacting to criticism, or the fear of criticism, of the sort of scores people are getting in his faculty. If so, the remedy is not to abolish the scoring system but to improve the teaching. This might start with recruitment. I suppose that The University of Hong Kong, like most local universities, usually hires people on the basis of their record and potential in research. Clearly if you are looking mainly at other matters you will occasionally recruit poor teachers. Why should this be surprising?
HKU students have been a turbulent lot lately. Science students are usually docile, but if the degree of contempt for their opinions exhibited by Prof. Sun is widespread then the turbulence may also be unsurprising.