academia, Higher Education, teaching

Lest we drown in student feedback (episode 4 of the Fabulous Four)

Fourth and last (for now) in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The last post, on Powerpoint, is available here.

Episode 4 (teaching)

Lest we drown in student feedback

(warning: this blog post contains a rant)

Not long ago I stumbled upon a heated discussion on Twitter, regarding plans of the University of Leeds to implement an anonymous student feedback plan. I couldn’t access the article reporting this fact (wasn’t bothered to pay the subscription fees, sorry), but apparently module leaders would need to respond to the anonymous student posts on the discussion board within five working days. Sure, why not just install self-flagellation poles in every faculty building. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.

In the debate, people particularly expressed their concern about teaching staff being confronted with anonymous attacks upon their gender, ethnicity, class, physical appearance and clothing choices, even their teaching style.

They’re not exaggerating. Research has shown that the ethnicity of teaching staff can affect the outcomes of student feedback, which in the UK is gathered mainly through the National Student Survey (NSS). I have also heard accounts of students complaining about too much feminism, for example. I love this reply from the author of an Academics Anonymous article on the topic:

The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion. My response to the […] feedback was to include more content on feminism, not less.

Student feedback is not always useful. Given that participation is voluntary, response rates tend to be low, and when it is made compulsory things get worse: students are asked to comment on a course they might not have attended, or they just didn’t like the topic, leading to useless comments like the one cited above. Let’s face it: students don’t necessarily know how to assess teaching. We might just as well introduce HappyOrNot smiley terminals across campus, like those at airports or public toilets.

In my own experience, the whole student feedback business seems to be mostly a matter of ticking boxes and scoring high in the NSS. In fact, one university department was even caught instructing students to falsify their approval ratings, telling them that nobody would want to employ them if the responses were negative.

Yep, once more it all comes down to rankings, numbers, assessments. What is it about universities always wanting to score highest, or be the best? There’s even such a thing as the Top 20 UK University Campus Awards, which in my opinion have been more beneficial to building, furniture and gardening industries than for students and staff alike.

Let me tell you just this one anecdote, about a criticism I got on a grammar rehearsal class I ran in the last year of a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship. The purpose of the course was to repeat grammar topics the students (in their second year) had studied the previous year. They had to buy a textbook, from where we selected topics and exercises, and then I added some exercises of my own, occasionally also using songs and other, unconventional sources—y’ know, to make it all a bit less boring.

So basically I would refresh their memory by briefly explaining the topic, using the whiteboard, and then we would do exercises. If the topic covered multiple lessons I would do a brief recap. As they say, repetita iuvant. Additionally, I told students where to find the grammar rules explained in the textbook, and I had published a schedule on Moodle, the university’s online learning platform, with the weekly topics listed. In sum, anyone who missed class could stay on track.

In theory.

In practice, they didn’t. Quite a lot of students, in fact, skipped class every other week or so, especially the one at 9am. Maybe they thought attendance was an optional, or they believed to be doing an online, self-learning degree?

What’s worse is that most of the students didn’t buy the textbook. The result was me regularly facing half a dozen of lost souls staring at me as if I was the Dalai Lama doing a tap dance, often stubbornly justifying their failure to do any exercises by the fact that they had missed class. Poor lambs. As if that was my responsibility.

But see, that’s precisely the problem: I was responsible for making the course material available to them, but in the way THEY wanted it to be. Now I realize I’m coming from one angle, and who knows what kind of study/workload the students might have been struggling with, but when I was an undergrad I always tried to catch up if I missed class, copying notes from fellow students, or at the very least doing the required reading. Is it so hard?

It felt as if I had to deliver a product, and if it didn’t reach the student-consumer, even by their own fault, I was nevertheless to blame.

What really blew my mind, though, was the student feedback: I hadn’t uploaded Powerpoints to Moodle. POWERPOINTS. So they could catch up when missing a class.

Now I know my last blog post was all in favour of Powerpoint, and I maintain that stance, but obviously it depends on the context. I actually used PPT a lot in my classes, just not in this one. After all, it was a rehearsal class, with the grammar being explained in the textbook and then briefly illustrated in class: why should I copy and paste all the rules into a PPT presentation? All I did was to give concrete examples of the grammar rules on the whiteboard. Had I used a PPT instead, the students would undoubtedly have complained that the slides were too concise.

Anyway, in my response to the feedback I explained my teaching method for this specific course, and pointed out that many students were playing hooky, a fact that was backed up by the attendance forms. Surely this would be a point of concern for the College, much more so than my not using Powerpoint?

And yet, my line manager – actually a staunch supporter of traditional, non-visual teaching methods – completely disappointed me when I read his proposed solutions to the raised criticism, something he had to communicate to the College as part of the whole student feedback process. Probably didn’t think I would read the report, but I did.

He literally wrote that next year there would be a new teacher. As if the problem was the teacher, not the students skipping class à gogo.

Obviously the issue here is not the line manager. Lord knows how many of these reports he has to send off to his superiors every year. It does show, though, how ineffective student feedback can be, and the harsh impact it can have on staff. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Here’s my recipe for a more humane approach to student learning experiences:

  • First, course convenors need to make it absolutely clear to students what is expected of them (also in terms of attendance), and what they should expect from the course.
  • Second, students need to be given proper instructions on how to assess teaching—a simple “be as objective as possible” sentence at the top of the survey will not suffice. And I would add, also tell them not to slash off teachers.

Most of all, I think we ought to do away with the anonymity culture behind student surveys. Maybe get them to share their experiences in a group chat run by an intermediate figure, who will liaise (so to speak) between students and teachers, making the former understand their responsibilities and filtering out potentially unfounded criticism when reporting back to the latter.

Wouldn’t that be a lot nicer?

 

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