Is Student Feedback a Waste of Time?

Posted @ 21:34 22 May 2014

John BostockObtaining student feedback on courses has become standard practice in many institutions. There is surely a simple logic that teachers and course managers should be listening to the views of students and taking them into account as they revise or develop future courses? I was therefore interested to read two other blog posts that take a very contrary view. Firstly an article by Rebecca Schuman on Slate: “Needs Improvement: Student evaluations of professors aren’t just biased and absurd- they don’t even work”. Secondly an anonymous academic on The Guardian: “Student feedback is a waste of everyone’s time”. The arguments (to condense and paraphrase) are that students are superficial and not well qualified to judge course content. They rate entertainment and easy grades above real intellectual challenge and academic effort.  

What interests me most about this discussion is the light it sheds on the dichotomy between traditional academic culture and the tertiary education industry that has emerged from policies to increase participation; funding models that depend on student throughput; social emphasis on qualifications; and in some countries, the financial investment students are making.  Higher education is increasingly run as a business with students as consumers. Many would argue that is how it should be and that real competition and student choice will drive up standards or drive out the teachers and institutions that fail to deliver.  There is a real clash of cultures and ideologies between those who believe students have to earn their degree and those who are focused on students achieving the outcome they have paid for.

It seems unlikely that the trend for commercialisation will halt as new business oriented providers enter this increasingly globalised space and students have more choice on where to invest their money and time. So how do we carry though some of our traditional academic values to this new environment? Without getting into the political complexities I suggest the first thing to do is to embrace new technology and increase the efficiency of teaching through the use of MOOCs and open educational resources in such a way as to free up lecturer time for more direct and personalised interaction with students. Teaching should be dialogue, and real engagement with staff is what students usually value most. Categorising lectures as “contact hours” is misleading in the context of typical undergraduate large class sizes.

Greater direct dialogue should influence student expectations, but more fundamental change to higher education is probably needed. Firstly consideration needs to be given to how students are assessed and credits and degrees awarded.  Is it really optimal for the same institution to not only select and teach the students, but also carry out the assessment and accreditation of learning?  Accrediting knowledge, skill acquisition and personal achievements in a separate and more flexible way could open up the whole educational system for greater collaboration and better provision for lifelong learning. More focus on formative feedback would also improve the quality of the teaching dialogue and free students to learn rather than just cram for exams. Secondly, if students do not appreciate the importance and relevance of what they are being taught, perhaps that suggests a restructuring of learning to provide more space and opportunity for experiential learning? Greater mobility between the worlds of employment and education (especially relevant employment) would greatly help in this respect, especially in applied subject areas such as aquaculture and fisheries. However, this may well require changes in social attitudes, corporate culture, legislation and educational funding – quite a challenge!

Perhaps the most depressing point to come from the above blog articles is that everyone is just “going through the motions” – both students and staff know that nothing will change as a result of the student feedback: It makes you wonder how many other educational activities fall into the same category!

 John Bostock

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