Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Survey Says…..

My copies of the Student Perceptions of Instruction from my fall classes arrived in my box last week. As usual, they offered little of value in terms of useful feedback even as they could have. But I have come to expect little more from the Factory and the corporate overlords it now unabashedly serves.

Take Our Survey – Win $1000!

The initial page of the survey provides a key to the comments which follow. The first two questions are particularly insightful:

1) The thing(s) I liked the MOST about this course;
2) The thing(s) I liked the LEAST about this course.

Of course, all of us are familiar with these questions. They are the questions we find on customer service surveys left on our tables with the checks at the end of dinner in a number of chain restaurants. We also encounter them at the customer service surveys we discover when we actually go to the online sites provided on our check out receipts from Home Depot or J.C. Penney, ostensibly to win $1000 or some such nonsense. Such questions may actually provide valuable feedback to the producers of restaurant meals, potted plants or bathroom curtains. But their utility in offering useful feedback to college instructors is largely missing.

The fact that a given consumer, formerly known as a student, liked or disliked a given course or a given aspect of the course’s pedagogy really tells the instructor nothing about the appropriateness of that pedagogy. Indeed, some of the most educationally useful pedagogies include aspects that students routinely hate – e.g., mandatory class attendance, critical reflection assignments, research papers. Conversely, commonly used pedagogies that the current crop of products of Pavlovian high stakes testing have come to expect such as multiple choice quizzes (with lots of time to go look up answers if given online) as well as cattle call auditorium classes where one’s absence can go unnoticed are fairly consistently shown to be popular but have little - perhaps even negative - pedagogical value.

In short, what a consumer likes or dislikes about a given class provides a college instructor charged with creating and executing pedagogies designed to help students become educated human beings little to work with. Indeed, they don’t even offer much to those technocrats who mistakenly see their role as stamping out obedient worker drones who emerge from vocational training factories with a bare minimum of skills and the work credential which is replacing the college degree.

“I want to be left alone…”

In years past, student evaluations (the predecessor to what is now accurately described as mere perceptions of instruction by students) were administered in class. The instructor read the directions, designated a student to distribute, collect and return the evaluations to the departmental or college office and then left the room. The evaluations took place in the context of the real live human being who taught the course. And they generally were completed by virtually the entire class present in the classroom the final day of classes.

I have for years preceded the instructor evaluation with a student self-evaluation in which students assessed their own performances in attendance, preparation, engagement, consideration and honesty before assessing mine. We used a form I created which allowed them to score their performance in each of those categories on the scale provided. It provided space to explain any given aspect of their performance and at the end, the student totaled the scores from each category, compared the sum to the grade scale for the whole exercise and then was asked to explain whether that grade accurately reflected their engagement of the class. Students took the exercise seriously because it advised the instructor on how to award the last 25 points of engagement credit.

The initial point of this exercise was to encourage students to reflect on their own performance in the course and hold themselves accountable. That the exercise immediately preceded the instructor evaluation also reinforced the notion that, like the medieval notion of the universitas, education occurs in the context of the whole body – all of the parties – participating. Without the context of the students’ performance, evaluation of an instructor’s performance is ultimately meaningless (which is the primary reason that assessing schools and teachers by student test results alone is profoundly misguided). It is a system that has worked for many years prior to its replacement by the current consumerist model.

Ironically, while the new survey was designed to provide results in a quick and easy fashion for bureaucrats with OCD tendencies when it comes to empirical data, students have largely resisted these surveys. Of the 71 students in my four courses this semester, only 40 actually had completed the Student Perception of Instruction survey when the results were printed out and sent to instructors last week. That’s a mere 56% of all the students, a far cry from the near 100% participation on instructor evaluations of the past. This raises a validity issue regarding the results from the very start. Instructors are charged with teaching all of their students, not just those who might actually answer a survey.

A more serious concern arises from the shift from in-person administration of these surveys to the current online administration. The removal of the actual human being from the process lends itself to an expectable and widely demonstrated dehumanizing effect. Study after study has observed that the tenor of commentary about other people tends in the direction of negativity online. Anyone who’s lived through a flame war online knows this tendency only too well. It’s a lot easier to take pot shots at people who aren’t present from the safe anonymity of cyberspace than when they’re standing in front of you.

To make matters worse, the Factory, recognizing the obvious problem in student participation on these surveys, has resorted to coercive tactics to insure students finally take the surveys. Of course, the students are only demonstrating expectable consumerist behaviors - Why bother? What’s in it for me? But while only 56% of my students had completed their surveys by the time the report was generated, the majority of the remaining 44% will ultimately comply if they wish to register for classes, the Factory having blocked their accounts until then. One can only imagine the tenor of comments compelled by such means.

Texas Hold ‘Em – Please!

It would be tempting to simply ignore the current consumerism that passes for instructor evaluations as just one more irritation imposed upon those struggling to survive in what was once a noble profession. Sadly, these Student Perceptions of Instruction offer little useful feedback for instructors primarily due to the underlying premises of the enterprise. It is simply one more aspect of the mindlessness that surrounds the educational enterprise in America today.

But it’s particularly disappointing when an effective, thoughtful evaluation which provided a contextual background for student responses might well provide instructors with valuable information about how to structure and teach their classes. The metalesson of such a feedback process could reinforce the notion of mutual responsibilities to the educational process. The current model merely reinforces the notion that students are consumers with little to no responsibility to anyone else, even to their own educational processes.

But wait! There’s more!

The Factory and its corporate overlords in Tallahassee are beginning to make noises that the mindless corporatism of Texas may be coming to a state near you. Under the system currently being implemented in Texas and praised by a number of Florida legislators and the governor, consumerist surveys such as the SPI could become major factors in everything from hiring to raises to promotions to firings. Combined with proposals to end tenure, evaluate instructors based upon how many students complete their courses and how many are employed after graduation, consumer surveys could become a major component in the careers of public servants in educational institutions.

Of course, there is little concern for actual education in this approach. Granted, that assumes that its proponents actually care about an educated public, ostensibly the purpose for public schools. As noted above, the primary concern for the vassals of the corporate world who run our state government today and the technocrats who implement those imperatives is an obedient, minimally trained work force largely headed toward service industry jobs. It is a sad day for a state with enormous potential I once loved in a once mighty nation I once believed in which today is clearly descending into decline.

Reed and Wright

I am the fourth generation of educators in my family. My great grandparents were named Reed and Wright. They were both teachers. I have devoted 32 years of my life to the goal of insuring the educated public necessary for a democratic society. The current practices of higher education do not serve that goal, they serve the greed-driven imperatives of business. There’s not much place for true educators in the emerging system. And while the people of Florida don’t know it yet, the current trajectory of technocrats implementing corporate directives which are profoundly shaping our educational system is going to produce a very different Florida within as little as one decade. I shudder to think of that possibility.

This is a pathologically myopic path we are pursuing. While it is possible to change course before our society completely derails, it is looking less and less likely such will happen. As Yeats observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Increasingly it is my sad realization tht one of the few consolations my life still holds is that I will not live long enough to see the full repercussions of this abandonment of the goal of insuring an educated public in America.

Socrates wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

1 comment:

CJ Schmidt said...

This is truly disturbing.