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Another Glimpse of Evaluation in China

Editor's Notes

By Trudy W. Banta October 10, 2013

In early June I made my second trip to China to speak at a conference on outcomes assessment/program evaluation. My first trip was scheduled for 1989, but it was postponed a year by the events in Tiananmen Square. Then I visited universities in Beijing and Shanghai. This time my destination was the interior “crossroads” of the country—the city of Wuhan. My host was higher education associate professor Hou Zhijun at the China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, who recently spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow working with Gary Pike in our institutional research office at IUPUI.

In 1990, we needed a translator for all interactions with our Chinese hosts. Now, Chinese children learn English from the time they enter formal education, which allowed me to exchange some words in English with almost all of the academics I encountered and with all of the students. Pronunciation sometimes presented a barrier to my understanding, but the students knew the vocabulary. I have such admiration for these achievements because English and Chinese are such vastly different languages that moving from one to the other requires an enormous effort. I am also grateful that the second language Chinese students have learned is my language as, sadly, I have not learned theirs.

In 1990, we had to pause after each comment to allow time for a translator standing beside us to convert our words to Chinese. Of course, this meant that we could present only half as much content in an hour as we wanted to do. Now, everyone in the audience has a device with earphones that permits Chinese speakers to hear presentations given in English translated into their native language by a person in a booth in the back of the room. On a second channel, English speakers can hear Chinese presentations translated into English.

I shall never forget my frustration and disappointment in 1990 when I learned that the Chinese did not have a word for evaluation! Different translators were giving it their own several-word definition, and it seemed that the closest anyone came to understanding what we meant by outcomes assessment was to liken it to end-of-course evaluations. Then we saw head nodding! Suddenly we encountered equations being written on blackboards, and we learned that Chinese scholars were using fuzzy math to analyze course evaluations. We ultimately evoked their enthusiasm, but we left wondering if we had made any progress in telling them about program evaluation—assessing curricular and institutional effectiveness to improve educational quality. In June I learned that even the subtitle of the conference I was attending demonstrated an understanding of outcomes assessment: “Meeting Challenges of Innovative Education and Quality Improvement.”

In 1990, the concept of student affairs was not well developed in China. This June I was providing the keynote address to open the “2013 International Conference on the Reforms and Transformation of Student Affairs”! Some titles of the conference papers given by Chinese scholars included “Study of the University’s Mission of Moral Education in the Context of Value Diversification,” “Practical Exploration on Promoting Standards in Student Affairs Administration and Services,” and “On Establishment of a Scientific Performance Evaluation System of Student Affairs Administration.”

My Wuhan host, Professor Hou, has told me on several occasions over the two years that I have known him that the influence of U.S. higher education on the development of Chinese universities is substantial. Indeed, his own paper for this conference, “Student Affairs Administration in the Context of the Learning Paradigm,” contained prominent references to Astin, Pascarella, and Terenzini, authors whose books he had found in the IUPUI library and in Gary Pike’s collection during his postdoc in Indianapolis. Hou is a strong advocate for cross-national collaboration in bringing theory and examples of successful experience to bear on strengthening student affairs administration and practice.

I was overwhelmed by the response to news of my lecture “for higher education faculty and students” scheduled on the second day of my visit. I knew that there were about thirty master’s students in the higher education program at the China University of Geosciences, and I had not expected a turnout larger than that. But the room was packed to capacity—nearly one hundred students were there! I was told later that this event had not been advertised for fear that too many students would try to attend. But the students in Wuhan had communicated electronically with their peers, and graduate students flew in from Peking University in Beijing and traveled from thirty other universities to hear what I had to say. Their questions reflected their reading of some of my work prior to the lecture.

I was very favorably impressed by much of the change I observed during my second visit to China. Unfortunately, however, some important things have not changed. On both trips I was housed in foreign visitors’ quarters on university campuses. In 1990, I was presented each morning with a thermos of boiling water, cups of which had to cool before I could drink them. In 2013, my host accompanied me to my room on the first night in order to show me how to use an electric pot to boil my drinking water. When I ordered water to drink at the university dining hall, it was served very hot.

When I was in Beijing in 1990, the smoke from the open burning of charcoal in woks used to cook food created such smog that on occasion I feared crossing the street because I couldn’t see the curb on the other side, much less on-coming traffic. In Wuhan, I didn’t see the sun for four days, and the air pollution caused my eyes to water as soon as I stepped outside. Prior to my lecture for students and faculty, I had taken a brisk ten-minute walk to see the impressive fossil museum of the University of Geo-sciences. Soon after I started to speak, I began to cough and sneeze. At first I thought the problem stemmed from my allergy to the huge lilies in the floral arrangement on the podium—that is, until I learned that the arrangement was made of silk flowers! Then I realized that I was reacting to the air I had breathed during my walk. Several students offered bottled water and packages of tissues. After a few minutes I recovered and went on with my talk.

One of the nicest things that happened during my 2013 visit was making the acquaintance of Yan Bingyao, the graduate student who volunteered to minister to my every need while I was in Wuhan. She majored in English as an undergraduate and had already translated some of my work into Chinese before we met. Now, as she stated in a subsequent email message, “My main study method is reading American higher education assessment papers and then introducing them to China.” She concluded her message, “I wish I could study with you in the future.” I would like nothing better, Bingyao.

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