What we should ask on student feedback forms

Felipe Fernández-Armesto on the inanity of questionnaires assessing teaching

October 17, 2013

I volunteered. How my spirit quails at the memory! The task in prospect filled me with fear and loathing, but I stepped forward foolishly to spare myself the lesser evil of embarrassment. “Who”, the chairman asked in a weary monotone, “will volunteer to write Professor Greindorp’s teaching quality assessment report?” Long silence followed the chairman’s challenge. I was the first to flinch.

I do not know whether life is as bad in this respect in the UK, but here in the US teams of inquisitors vet candidates for promotion, peering into their books and prying into their classrooms. The teaching report is the deadliest part of the process – not for the candidate, who usually emerges triumphant, but for the reporter, who must contrive to mask a subjective judgement with specious statistics. Everyone shrinks from the tedious labour and onerous responsibility.

In solitude silence calms me. In company it makes me fretful. I have to fill conversational gaps with babble. At conferences, I feel compelled to break the embarrassed silence that follows a dull presentation, even when I know that my comment is inane, irrelevant or superficial. On the occasion of Greindorp’s promotion case, an uneasy conscience also urged me to speak up: I had always successfully eluded the obligation to report on colleagues’ teaching. It was time for me to do my bit.

The effect is like gazing into the Sybil’s cave: the leaves and tablets, reshuffled as if at random by a listing wind, make mystically fascinating patterns unrelated to reality

I enjoyed one part of the job: the class visit was a delight. Within a few minutes, I realised that Greindorp (I have given him a name as remote as possible from what he is really called) was a far better teacher than I. It would not be enough, however, to say so. I turned for validation to texts as impenetrable as any petroglyph: the “course information feedback” students provide online, every semester, on every teacher.

Some students abuse the system to take revenge on teachers who have been properly critical. Most, however, try to be of honest, useful service. Their good intentions fail for two reasons. First, the professional statisticians who tabulate the results seem bereft of common sense. Rogue outliers distort the graphs. In small classes, the views of one or two dissenters from an otherwise convincing consensus turn every outcome – however spectacular – into something close to average. Deciles, percentages and fancy graphics obscure the truth. The effect is like gazing into the Sybil’s cave: the leaves and tablets, reshuffled as if at random by a listing wind, make mystically fascinating patterns unrelated to reality and inscrutable to a normal mind.

Second, and more seriously, the writers of the questionnaires that students receive seem never to have been in a classroom themselves. They ask questions variously dumb or vague, but rarely if ever attuned to any real teacher’s proper ambitions. They never ask: “Did the course change your mind? Did it make you think more critically, write more powerfully, listen more attentively, sympathise more widely or speak more fluently?” They never say: “Did the course broaden your perspectives, multiply your interests, or enhance your life?” Concerning the teacher, they never enquire: “Did he or she inspire you to new efforts or encourage you to want to learn more?” And this question never occurs: “Did he or she alert you to defects in your work and help you to put them right?” The online forms never even pose the most elementary of queries, such as “Did you learn anything new?” or “Did your teacher alert you to interesting intellectual, moral or practical problems that you had previously overlooked?”

In the US, one of the great blessings and curses of the university system is that students take lots of different courses in contrasting disciplines, often without any overarching plan. But the course information feedback questionnaire never asks: “Did your teacher help you to see connections between the various subjects you study?”

The report writer, in consequence, gets virtually no help in trying to tell whether the professor in question is a great teacher. It is possible, however, to compute with near-exactitude how popular one’s colleagues are. For the language, tone and targets of the questionnaires, while largely irrelevant to education, are evidently modelled on consumer satisfaction surveys. The formularies ask: “Would you recommend this course?”, as if they were dealing with a focus group formed to test toothpaste or cat food. “Did the course fulfil your expectations?” they enquire – as if the aim of education were not to subvert and revolutionise expectations. “Were the materials useful?” they demand, as if the value of the course could be established by the suitability of the laboratory equipment rather than the adventure of the experiments, or by the commensurability of the textbook rather than the way lectures exceed or transcend the readings.

Most depressingly of all, the questionnaires often ask: “Were the lectures easy to understand?” This is an invitation to reward dumbing down and oversimplification, instead of encouraging students in the pleasures of strenuous thought and dilemmatic enquiry. The final question, typically, is: “How could your teacher improve?” Below it is a box where the vindictive frolic, the malcontents find refuge and the desperate fill the space with platitudes. The whole system seems calculated to undo any good work a teacher may have striven to achieve.

I cannot quantify how good a teacher Greindorp is. The animation his students evince, the love they bear him, the intellectual ambitions and scholarly habits they take with them when they leave his classroom and embrace worthwhile vocations: these are the real, incalculable evidence I draw on for my report.

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