A Semester in Review

21 Mar 2003

I’m here in China to get really good at Mandarin Chinese. Fortunately, I also enjoy teaching English, since I’ve been doing it for going on three years now. I’m really interested in applied linguistics, so to me teaching is more than just a source of income. It’s research. (Warning to the short of attention span: the following long post is going to be solely about teaching English in China.)

At the end of each semester, I always evaluate how the semester went. Did my students learn anything? Did I stimulate their interest as well (in other words, was class interesting)? Are they likely to remember anything I taught them that semester? Did the grades I gave really reflect the increase in their spoken English proficiency?

These are some hard questions, ones that I think many casual backpacker English teacher types don’t give a second thought to. It’s understandable, if they’re only going to be in China for one or two semesters. But I really care about these answers, personally and intellectually. To help me answer these types of questions about my classes, each semester I have my students answer an anonymous questionnaire in class. I use the results when making decisions about how to modify my class for the next semester.

Last semester class grading was mostly discussion-based, although there were only 5 iscussions. Discussions were student-led. Student discussion leaders also had the responsibility of coming up with their own thought-provoking discussion questions.

The following are the questions I asked my students and some of the answers I received (in the students’ own words, mistakes and all).

1. What did we not do enough of in class?

  • watch movies
  • play more games
  • we should have class outside
  • We didn’t talk enough to you!

I was surprised that a lot of students felt that they didn’t have enough direct interaction with me. I strive not to be one of those “spoken English teachers” that just talks the whole class. If the students are to improve their speaking ability, they must do the talking in class. Maybe I overdid it though? It’s the first time I ever got that remark, and I got it from quite a few different students.

More movies and class outside are typical suggestions, but they can only be practically realized (and justified) to a very limited extent.

2. What did we do too much of in class?

  • Laughing
  • We made too much jok
  • I think some of the discussions are very good, but some are meaningless. We can’t improve our Oral English speaking ability by discussions. We learn little things, maybe none.
  • The class is all about discussion, it is boring.

The last two comments are the kind I take seriously. The only problem is, from a linguistic standpoint, very often the students have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Students who don’t like discussions often propose more one-on-one interaction with me. In a class full of students, however, that’s just not practical. I have to go by the wisdom I learned at UF’s ELI: “divide the class, multiply the talking.” That means they interact with each other more than me. But it gives them more speaking practice.

The complaint about too much discussion is just ludicrous. I think five 30-minute discussions, spread out over 16 weeks of class, hardly qualifies as overdoing it.

3. What did you like about the discussions?

  • They’re always interesting.
  • Great, wonderful, interesting.
  • Through the discussions, some unfamiliar classmates become familiar.
  • The topic is usually very interesting so most of us like it. we learn new and good ideas from others at once our English are improved. It’s helpful.

Here a problem with the questionnaires becomes apparent. The students’ feedback is often completely contradictory! When my ideas are based on sound linguistic principles and legitimate pedagogy, though, I tend to listen more to the positive feedback than the whiners.

4. What did you dislike about the discussions?

  • I dislike the discussions which are boring and tedious.
  • I don’t have enough time to talk with our dear John.
  • We don’t know whether our sentences are correct.
  • For example sex. I think it is not good for us.
  • We are too young to say such sexy topic.

Complaints about class being boring are typical. Many students expect foreign teachers to be singing dancing game-playing clown entertainers (and some of them do fit the bill). Compared to most of their other classes, just about any spoken English class is a nice breath of fresh air for Chinese students, but they still complain.

The sex complaint is an interesting one, because I debated myself whether I should devote a discussion to the topic of sex. It went really well, though.

5. Any other comments?

  • No other comments, the class is much more interesting and funny than other courses.
  • Actually I like your class best. Because it is very interesting. And you are a very good teacher.
  • The atmosphere is too serious espaciouly when we have oral quiz. You shouldn’t be so rigid on the examination and the scores.
  • We should not have examination.
  • You’re an awesome guy. : )
  • I think you are very handsome, also a good teacher.
  • John is a good teacher. warmly and kind-heart. Oral English lesson is active class. But the class time is too short.
  • You are the best teacher and very lively.
  • The class has a little boiling so I want teacher to make it more interesting. Can have class outside and play much.
  • On the whole, John’s classes are interesting and lively, full of excitement and joy. We have been looking forward to Friday and your classes.
  • You are a lively teacher, I like your style. Could you communicate with us after class, We could talk more and discuss. I think that would improve our English level greatly.
  • I can’t understand why you forbade us to speak Chinese you know, sometimes speak Chinese will make thing more comfortable some words we must speak Chinese to express ourselves. It is true that in English class English is the language we should speak, but Chinese is also useful. So I hope you will not forbade us to speak Chinese next term.
  • This course is useful and I like it very much. : )
  • I think the class doesn’t do much to improve my English.
  • Useful English, not useless playing.
  • I love you.

OK, so I never said I couldn’t use my own blog to boost my ego. Hehe… Sometimes students can leave harsh comments, so all the positives provide a nice balance. Again, there’s so much conflicting feedback, but I think doing questionnaires is definitely worthwhile. I highly recommend it to any TEFL teachers who are trying to improve their teaching methods.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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