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More Schools Allowing Student Evaluation of Classes

November 21, 1997

The practice of having students evaluate their teachers is no longer just a university phenomenon. (Photo: Jiji Gaho Sha Inc.)

For a while now, some universities have given students the chance to rate the content of their classes in an effort to improve the teaching of smug, uninspired professors. This trend is now beginning to spread to high schools as well. Schools are now engaged in heightened competition for an ever-shrinking pool of students, and by putting this power in the hands of pupils they are trying to burnish their images as "open" schools more geared to students' needs.

Practice Widespread in Higher Education
It was in this decade that universities began implementing methods whereby students could evaluate the classes they took. The venerable Keio University, established during the Meiji era at the dawn of Japan's modern period, was one of the first institutions to bring the system into action when it launched it in 1990 in its policy management and environmental information faculties. Students there are given a 13-question form in July, prior to summer break, asking them to rate their first-term classes (the Japanese school year begins in April) on a scale of one (not at all) to five (very much) in areas including whether they had been interesting and whether the professor had provided appropriate information. Students, however, are apt to evaluate their classes by the easiness in getting higher grades rather than the intended rating formula. Keio therefore established the ground rule, agreed to by all professors and lecturers, that no evaluation would be reflected in university personnel decisions. This has led to a comfortable atmosphere in which instructors feel free to discuss teaching methods with one another.

Kansai University located on the outskirts of Osaka, established its Faculty of Informatics in 1994 with a similar evaluative system. At the end of the spring and fall terms, students are asked to complete a survey consisting of 17 to 20 questions--such as "Did you find the class interesting?"--rating the class from one to five as in the Keio questionnaire. The system is now an integral part of the educational experience there, and is praised by students and instructors alike as being "meaningful from the standpoint of developing easily understood, stimulating lectures."

The number of institutions of higher learning that have implemented student-evaluation systems has ballooned over the past few years--almost 9.3 times, from the 38 schools offering one in the 1992 school year to the 352 schools with such a system in place in 1996.

High Schools Getting In on the Act
The student-evaluation system is trickling down to the high-school level as well. One private high school in Tokyo's Minato Ward has asked its students to evaluate their classes since 1992. At the end of each June, a little over two months into the new school year, the students rate their classes, again from one to five, in such areas as how well the teacher could be heard, the legibility of writing on the blackboard, and the teacher's enthusiasm. The students are asked to append comments when they give a five, the highest rating, or a one or two. The teachers make use of these ratings and comments in improving their teaching approach for the school term beginning in September.

Another private high school in Kanagawa Prefecture, just west of Tokyo, that implemented the system in 1992 asks questions like "Does the teacher give students the opportunity to confirm and get a firm grasp of what they have learned?" and "Do classes begin on time?" The school sees the evaluations as aimed primarily at helping teachers to polish their instruction skills, but as having the additional merit of promoting students' own awareness of their role in the educational process as they rate their classes.

Starting in 1997 six private high schools in Saitama Prefecture to the north of Tokyo have launched a joint program of student evaluations. Students answer 22 multiple-choice questions, such as "is the teacher enthusiastic about the class?" and "does the teacher understand the students' point of view?" The answers are then tabulated by computer. The surveys are carried out in July and December, at the end of the first and second trimesters; the second survey is intended to determine how well the teachers have reflected the results of the first in their teaching.

Public schools are also taking steps toward implementing student evaluations. Shikoku's Kochi Prefecture is planning to introduce the system in all prefectural high schools next year.

Fighting over Fewer Kids
These efforts at universities and high schools to use students' input toward improving classes and lectures are spreading rapidly. Behind this promulgation lies the sharp decrease in recent years in the number of children in Japan, and the heightened competition between schools trying to attract their applications.

The nation's total fertility rate (the number of children born to each woman during the course of her life), which had previously stayed above 2, dropped to 1.91 in 1975. It has continued to fall since then; it stood at only 1.43 in 1995. The number of children (defined as those under age 15) has accordingly dropped since the 1980s: In 1996 this number fell below 20 million for the first time. As of April 1997 there were 19.52 million children in the nation, comprising only 15.3% of the total population--an 8.2-point drop from the ratio in 1980.

Meanwhile, the percentage of middle-school graduates going on to high school has risen as high as 96.8% for the 1996 school year, making high school little different from compulsory education with respect to attendance. The percentage of high-school graduates going on to university has leveled off in recent years; it was 33.4% in 1996. Faced with this, high schools and institutions of higher education have been scrambling to fill their student slots, and seem to have entered an age when they must fight for their very survival.

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