Do students have something to teach academics? Student feedback, now a feature of most university courses, can be useful – but more often it’s downright biased, sexist or simply unrealistic.
At the university where I teach social science, students are asked to fill in feedback forms eight times a year – the first one after just 10 weeks of classes.
Despite the time and effort put into recording students’ experiences and opinions, feedback is rarely useful. Response rates are low, unless it is made compulsory, in which case a second problem arises, namely that students are asked to comment on a course they barely attended.
I recently taught a large first-year course that doesn’t count towards students’ final marks. Attendance was habitually awful. It’s hard to take feedback seriously from students who simply weren’t there, especially comments like this:
“I found myself discouraged to attend as lectures were quite uninteresting. Powerpoint made it quite dull. They could use Prezi instead.”
This student assumes that it’s up to me to tempt her to class by making classes entertaining (this is certainly not my interpretation of my role). While good teaching brings the subject to life, what is interesting is highly subjective.
Many of my students enjoy salacious content and would love to have more, but a degree course must be more than a collection of standup routines. Then again, if we constantly ask students to assess classes in terms of how interesting they are, that could be the result.
Students have unrealistic expectations
Most feedback boils down to whether students like the class or not, but rarely offers much about why. Students are not well-equipped to assess teaching.
Their expectations are out of synch with the skill set of teachers and the university’s slim resources. For example, few of us were employed because we are great public speakers, so it’s hard to respond to comments such as:
“The lecturers’ presentation skills were lacking.”
Students’ comments on course content are similarly useless:
“Simply a boring topic. No fault of the lecturers.”
They are not experts in the field and are not well-placed to assess the relative merits of a course. I teach a course that has gender as its focus. Students often comment that there is “too much feminism”, or that:
“It seemed to be highly focused on women’s experiences… not that this is terrible…”
The course content reflects academic research and theory on the subject and is not up for discussion. My response to the above feedback was to include more content on feminism, not less.
Confusing, obscure and sexist
Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of student feedback is inviting students to comment on their teachers. Of course it’s nice occasionally to read that one is a “brilliant teacher” but this hardly gives much insight. Comments are often confusing, obscure or downright sexist. For example:
“Get a new lecturer.”
“One of the most biased classes ever. The teacher was certainly well-informed, but had little to no consideration of other people’s opinions.”
As a feminist, I am often accused of bias: there is no equivalent for male colleagues who adopt Marxist, critical or cultural perspectives.
Students’ ideas about what academics ought to be like often favour older men with beards. Most universities will have at least one older man whom students will venerate as a “legend”.
Student feedback is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s disingenuous to ask students constantly to complete feedback forms that will probably do little more than fester on a hard drive until someone needs to cherry-pick the good comments for annual reports or applications for promotion.
It’s also completely redundant: universities appoint external examiners who review course content and marking annually, and there are regular peer observations by colleagues. These ensure professional standards are maintained. As to the question of whether students are satisfied, I’d rather they had an education.
To the students who fail to fill out the feedback forms: I salute you! I like to imagine you do so knowingly, rather than lazily. Either is a clear indictment of the failure of the system.
Maybe without the sop of feedback, students might be tempted to tell us what they actually think, and we might even be able to talk about the point of education. My door is open…