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.