The value of student feedback

A long time ago, in my student days, I was a student representative for my class. We were law students, in a fairly traditional but open-minded university. Our degree programme was in some ways a curious mixture, with some subjects taught to a very conservative syllabus, while others were innovative and ground-breaking. Anyway, the student representatives from the various years got together and mapped out what we thought might be an improved syllabus. We asked to present this to the School’s academic staff, and we were given an opportunity to do so. A number of changes to the syllabus and course structure followed. Of all the things in which I have participated in academic life, this is one of which I am particularly proud.

However, the success of the initiative depended on our enthusiasm and, crucially, the goodwill of the lecturing staff. There was no routine way of registering our views, and I am not sure that it happened again for quite a while. In fact, as a lecturer my first real experience of student input came in my second job, as a Professor of Law in the University of Hull. Before I joined the Law School it had established a ‘staff-student committee’, with equal representation of both students and faculty, and always chaired by a student (but with the Dean present). The students set the agenda, and so everything was potentially a matter for discussion. The committee’s deliberations regularly led to changes in the programme.

In the mid-1990s the School, in line with emerging quality assurance standards in English higher education, introduced anonymous student feedback at the end of each module. Initially this was done by questionnaires sent by post to each student, but the response rate was poor. So we changed, and used the second half of one of the last lectures to hand out the questionnaires and ask the students to complete them there and then, with the lecturer leaving the room and leaving it to a student to collect the completed forms and hand them in. The quality of this particular kind of student feedback was usually very good, and was influential in programme reviews and design.

When I returned to Ireland in 2000, I confess I was surprised that this had not also become a standard practice there – and I am disappointed that it still isn’t. Some lecturers do organise student feedback, but there is no system-wide management of this, and in many degree programmes students have no opportunity to register their views or suggestions or present an assessment of the value to them of what they have experienced. This gap in practice has been picked up by the Higher Education Strategy Group led by Colin Hunt, and in its report it has recommended that ‘every higher education institution should put in place a comprehensive anonymous student feedback system, coupled with structures to ensure that action is taken promptly in response to student concerns’ (page 61). I am wholly in favour of this recommendation, though I might add that its value goes beyond voicing concerns to suggesting improvements and ideas for reform.

As we have come to emphasise that higher education is not just about active teachers and passive learners, it is important that students have opportunities to shape their learning experience. It is not a question of students taking over course design or assessment, but rather of dialogue with learners from which programme design and delivery can benefit – if it is organised well and carried out effectively. Ireland is seriously behind in this, and it is a matter of some urgency that this recommendation is adopted.

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18 Comments on “The value of student feedback”

  1. Jo McCafferty Says:

    While we have a university wide feedback system in place, our school also runs a continuous anonymous (if they want) feedback system for our distance learning students- usually around halfway through a module I’ll remind students the service is there – to be honest feedback is minimal in terms of numbers of students using it, the students aren’t as involved as we might like them to be. However, the fact they can feedback to us during a module means we can make any urgent changes while the student is still taking the class so that they can get the benefit of it, rather than just changing things for future students.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Feedback. To what end exactly. I can see the use for the senile, the otherwise ill and the downright crazy. But surely by the nature of the thing the student has little clue what’s good and useful and what’s not.
    I may have mentioned the Classical Civilization student that decided that the subject advocated for homosexuality. What sort of report would that fellow produce had the faculty not decided to cull fools in that first fortnight.

  3. jfryar Says:

    Well, there are a few issues I would raise regarding ‘student feedback’. Feedback is, of course, utterly pointless unless it is collated, analysed, discussed and issues acted on. I have no fundamental problem with collecting student feedback and agree with the Hunt report that mechanisms need to be incorporated into the structure and operation of the institution for them to have any use.

    The aim of every university is to educate students, and if those students feel that things can be improved or they are not happy with the quality of that education, then academics should eat a slice of humble pie and listen to them. This aspect, in my opinion, becomes more significant if students have to pay fees and, if Ireland should ever go down that route, I think universities will have to examine their hiring policies – attracting top academics to research jobs and ensuring minimum contact time with students might enhance the reputation of the institution but employing lesser mortals who have a proven record of actually progressing students through their degrees might be of more benefit to the students themselves.

    But we need to be careful. Exactly the same arguments as the Hunt report were put foward in England particularly when fees were reintroduced. What started off as an internal feedback rapidly became a National Student Survey which now ranks departments for all students, parents and interested parties to see. The difficulty is that these rankings are easily upset – all it takes is for one student to give a ‘negative’ comment and your department’s position plummets in the tables. This survey is now also being used in the ‘league tables’ that rank English universities and although we may not pay much attention to them, the public do.

    One question I would raise about internal feedback is how it would sit with the Freedom of Information Act …

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    we are going through an undergraduate teaching review here in Dundee and I cannot even imagine how I could rethink and rewrite my Media Theory course without taking into account students’ feedback of the past five years. For the record, all module information and materials are available online (we use Blackboard) together with an anonymous survey that students complete at the end of the semester..

  5. Dan Says:

    Ferdinand, it’s not entirely true that there is not a strong culture of student feedback and evaluation in Ireland. I’ve been doing it every semester since 2003 myself and always tweak courses to adjust to students’ feedback and I started it to emulate colleagues’ surveys. Following a pilot programme in 2009/2010 in UCD, it has now gone system-wide across the university, with all modules subject to online student evaluation from last semester. This of course does not include the QA/QI and QR process that most university depts go through every 5 years or so – that also have major student surveys that often lead to significant programme changes.

  6. Simon Quinn Says:

    I agree that dialogue with learners may benefit programme design and delivery. My own experience is of student feedback through participation in course board mechanism.

    However, as with much of the Hunt report the precise nature of the proposed “student feedback system” is unclear (perhaps usefully in this instance) and there is no research evidence alluded to.

    If the intention is to introduce an anonymous student evaluation of teaching that is linked to an assessment of lecturer performance then it would have a very corrosive effect on education.

    Research evidence in the US has established a strong link between grade inflation and student evaluations. Lecturers get higher ratings by awarding higher grades and by lowering the workload.

    A paper by Leef (p8) and one by Greenwald & Gillmore are well worth reading to get an insight into the dangers of performance linked student evaluations:

    https://www.goacta.org/publications/downloads/GradeInflationFinal.pdf

    http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/pdf/Gwald_Gillmore_JEdP_1997.OCR.pdf

    In particular, linking student evaluations to the award of tenure has led to dysfunctional behavior and a recent discussion and responses on the blog of Professor Claire Potter is illustrative of the myriad of issues that arise:

    http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2011/01/if-i-could-stick-my-pen-in-my-heartand.html

    Like much of the debate in Ireland as present, many of our systemic failures offer an opportunity for reform but we need to robustly challenge (as your blog allows) proposals for change that might adopt failed models or that merely accentuate existing problems.

    • jfryar Says:

      There’s no research alluded to in the whole bloody document, so it shouldn’t surprise us it’s also vague in this regard.

  7. Dan Says:

    Simon,
    Yikes, “linking student evaluations to the award of tenure” has led to problems! Who could have possibly expected that might happen?

    I jest of course. More seriously, one response to the idea, in the UK, that students are best placed to know what courses should be on offer in universities, has been: “No, they’re not – that”s why you go to university”. I think, as you say, there is a big difference between listening to student feedback, and letting young people at the start if their studies, design courses.


  8. We can get a sense of how misguided student evaluations can be by the list of top twenty five universities in the US, as ranked by an amalgamation of millions of student reviews of professors. The list of universities with the “best professors” then is:

    1. Oklahoma Wesleyan University
    2. United States Military Academy (NY)
    3. Clarke College (IA)
    4. Wellesley College (MA)
    5. North Greenville University (SC)
    6. Master’s College and Seminary (CA)
    7. Wabash College (IN)
    8. Carleton College (MN)
    9. Sewanee-The University of the South (TN)
    10. Marlboro College (VT)
    11. Corban College (OR)
    12. Randolph College (VA)
    13. United States Air Force Academy (CO)
    14. Wesleyan College (GA)
    15. Pacific University (OR)
    16. Whitworth University (WA)
    17. Doane College (NE)
    18. College of the Ozarks (MO)
    19. Bryn Mawr College (PA)
    20. Sara Lawrence College (NY)
    21. Emory & Henry College (VA)
    22. Wisconsin Lutheran College
    23. Hollins University (VA)
    24. Trinity International University (IL)
    25. Cornell College (IA)

    Never heard of any of them? Just shows.

    This list is reported and discussed on the Huffington Post at:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/06/best-professor-colleges_n_791881.html#s198538&title=undefined

    Needless to say, there is a lot of guffawing in the discusion.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Some of those places are moderately well known, in the US anyway, but not for their research so guffawing seems rather inane. Liberal arts colleges (which some of the above are) often provide quite good teaching partly because thats what professors are focused on. Their more academic graduates may go on to do post-grad elsewhere.
      In some of the more famous universities, the big-shot professors go to great lengths to avoid teaching, deligating to TA’s etc.


    • There is a *huge* difference between Rate My Professor on the one hand, and properly designed and administered student surveys on the other. This is not the same kind of thing at all.

      • Dan Says:

        To agree with Kevin Denny, some of these are very well-known and highly regarded liberal arts colleges: I’ve taught students from Bryn Mawr and Carleton, top-notch they were too.

  9. Al Says:

    I started doing student feedback once I established myself within my subject. I asked very raw harsh questions and told them that I wanted brutal honesty! Most of the feedback was directed at my work which I then took on board.
    This kind of feedback might not be looked on as welcome by everyone, and I would be concerned if management got a look at it as not everything within it was complementary to the establishment.

    Feedback is very important, but it can never be a substitute for academic leadership and quality maintenance. This is especially important in vocational courses where there is a standard out there in industry and if the students cant cut the mustard they should seek a future elsewhere.

  10. anna notaro Says:

    For those (in Scotland) interested in this topic I just wish to mention the forthcoming (March) Enhancement Themes conference, one of the biggest learning and teaching events in the Scottish higher education calendar (details at http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/Conference/Default.asp)

  11. Martin Ryan Says:

    The Irish Universities Study, supported by the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF), has developed a large web-based survey system targeted at 3rd / 4th level students and researchers in the Irish universities. Full details here:

    http://www.iua.ie/iua-activities/studentfeedback.html


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