I read with interest John Colley’s recent article “It’s got to be good” (Opinion, 10 October). While raising important issues, he misses the point on a number of levels.
First, he falls into the positivist trap of viewing student experience surveys as “objective”: I have found them to be anything but. Students can only answer the questions posed to them according to their own biases.
Second, Colley’s argument that student satisfaction with teaching is much the same as satisfaction with consumer products or even patient survival rates is absurd: academic teaching is only one aspect of the learning process in which students themselves have a key part to play.
The article indicates that Colley is viewing the issue according to a paradigm in which students judge teaching rather than their own learning experience, which is fundamental to a genuinely transformative university education. This is a noxious mixture of higher education focused on teaching (as opposed to learning) combined with a consumerist viewpoint.
I have no problem with institutional student experience surveys: they largely reflect the successes and failures of the institutions concerned. However, student surveys of individual teachers often fail to give real indications of what needs improving and the results are largely dependent upon the teacher-student relationship.
The student perspective needs to be engaged - but not to the exclusion of all others. A much better approach would be to scrap faux quantitative teacher/module evaluations and introduce a more qualitative approach in which teachers and students engage in dialogue to identify areas for improvement. While there are issues of power relationships here, experience indicates that they can be overcome: a partnership approach to learning and teaching has often proved to be much more effective.
Social Research and Evaluation Unit
Faculty of Education, Law and Social Sciences
Birmingham City University