Nightmare student feedback: ‘I can’t remember who the teacher was’

Kingsley Purdam on the relentless need to gather feedback – and why the results of doing so are not always of much value

October 31, 2017
dislike, unlike, negative, feedback, review
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It is the age of feedback! We are all constantly being asked to provide it. On a recent train journey I was offered four different ways to provide feedback on how satisfied I was with the toilets.

Feedback has become a key part of reputation building for service providers. Online businesses such as Amazon, eBay and TripAdvisor all use customer feedback as an integral part of their business models. 

University teaching is no exception. Student feedback on the efforts and abilities of their lecturers has become a key part of the performance assessment of individual staff and also of universities as a whole. The National Student Survey, the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey and the UK Engagement Survey all collect student feedback. In addition individual course units have student feedback surveys, and feedback is usually also collected via the course student representatives. 

There are even websites that encourage students to make personal comments about their lecturers. 

Feedback from students can be very valuable for lecturers to develop their understanding of how their students are engaging with a course and how they are learning. It can help lecturers to reflect on their teaching and to innovate in their approach. Lectures are now recorded, which means that there is a record of every word that the lecturer says in the classroom. This can be the source of further student feedback, and can also be a way for the lecturer to experience his or her own teaching by listening in. 

I am currently involved in a research project looking at the measurement of public attitudes and engagement, and we have examined the nature of student feedback and collected examples of where the written comments from students have left the lecturer perplexed. 

Firstly, often many students do not respond to requests for feedback. This can lead to unrepresentative feedback. While the NSS has a reported response rate of 68 per cent, this feedback is not specific to individual courses or lecturers. Some of the university course units that we have examined have had less than 10 per cent of students complete the feedback surveys. 

One lecturer commented how they had received praise from their line manager about the excellent feedback on their teaching even though it was based on a response from only one student! The rest of the students had not bothered to participate.   

Often, the scope of the questions that the students are asked to answer can be quite limited. For example, the NSS states that it only takes five minutes to complete. It includes questions such as: “Have staff made the subject interesting?” which seem a little simplistic and of limited use for informing approaches to teaching. 

One lecturer we spoke to explained how, in some kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, their course unit questionnaire asked students for feedback on the feedback that they had received on their work before they had actually been given the feedback.

Another we consulted received the following feedback: “Honestly, I can’t remember who the teacher was, sorry”Perhaps more worryingly, another lecturer received the following feedback: “I can't remember anything about this module.” Another student commented: “Sorry to say I actually can’t think of anything to say”. 

Among students who could remember the course and the lecturer there was other, somewhat baffling, feedback. One lecturer reported how one student had written that they: “Just found the whole subject quite boring”Yet this is a degree course that the student is presumably studying by choice.

Perhaps the lecturer needs to make their teaching more engaging and exciting, of course, but could they transform the whole subject? 

Other student feedback can also provide a challenge for lecturers to know how to respond. One lecturer told us that one of their students had commented: “The lectures were rather relaxed”. Perhaps of more direct frustration was the student who commented that: “The exam practice class was no use as we didn’t get to see the actual exam questions, just the old ones.” 

Tellingly, another student, in response to what she valued most about the course, wrote“My good grade”. 

Student feedback can be much more positive, of course. Aside from one lecturer who received the comment from a student that he was “quite cute”, student feedback can be constructive and informative and reassure the lecturer that their teaching is delivering the learning that they expected. 

One lecturer received the memorable comment that he: “Should be dipped in gold” such were their skills in supporting the students in their learning. However the comment that one lecturer received from a student that read: “The teacher is a pedagogue” is less clear in terms of whether it is positive or negative. 

Using feedback to improve teaching 

A great way to reflect on your own teaching is to go along and listen to a colleague’s lecture. Look out for body language, voice control, timing, use of practical tasks and student engagement.  

Informal mid-term feedback from students writing anonymously on postcards can be helpful in fine-tuning a course to the needs of the students who are actually studying it at the time. For example, on one occasion it led to me spending more time discussing the assignment requirements for a course and reassuring students about a presentation that they were required to give. 

Approaches to teaching in which students are actively involved in practical tasks that aid their learning can also be a way to pick up on how students are engaging and learning. In social research courses, this can involve students running their own focus groups and conducting their own surveys as a practical hands-on way of learning. 

Feedback from students is a vital part of any education system in terms of improving teaching and assessment, developing lecturers’ understanding of how students learn and for quality assurance. I don’t think that we should hide from the feedback that we receive but we need to collect student feedback in different ways to ensure that it is fit for purpose, particularly given its growing (and controversial) importance in higher education funding.  

Perhaps students themselves also need more guidance and support on how to provide feedback that is usable by academics. It may be that students are perplexed about what they are being asked about. 

Kingsley Purdam is an academic based in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester. He teaches social statistics and research at undergraduate and postgraduate level and is the former director of academic staff training. 

This blog is part of ongoing research into the measurement of public attitudes and approaches to learning at the University of Manchester. If you have received any perplexing feedback from students, please tweet @socialstatsman or email kingsley.purdam@manchester.ac.uk. Make sure it is anonymised. Also, if you have any constructive feedback on this blog please share it.

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Reader's comments (2)

This takes for granted that feeback gathering is student centred, when really it is management centred, with, for example, the move from precarious and/or probationary employment conditional on achieving certain feedback scores. This, irrespective of the intrinsic interest of the topic taught, or matters outside the teacher's control, such as class size, room suitability for pedagogy best deployed, where the lecture is in the weekly timetable. 5 pm Friday, 8:30 Monday. Moreover, I do not know a single academic who has not had anonymous comments on their physical appearance, sexual attractiveness and availabilty or otherwise, or clearly vengeful comments passed on without any attempt to mediate by their employer. Universities have set up and continue operate systems which subject their staff to a storm of awful personal abuse and bullying, and do nothing to stop this. The class action suits must sure be on their way.
I agree that the process is deeply flawed but am not aware of comments on physical appearance and so on creeping in. I have not had any yet but maybe my appearance is what students expect from a 50-something male.

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