Satisfaction’s limits

March 13, 2014

Many questions are raised by the case of the former lecturer at Imperial College London who claims that poor student satisfaction ratings led to her being dismissed (“Taxing lectures led to sacking, tribunal told”, News, 6 March). Were students dissatisfied because they had to work harder than on other courses? If so, why were their other courses not more demanding?

This highlights the problem of interpreting satisfaction data. Students are satisfied or dissatisfied with all kinds of different things for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with educational effectiveness; so satisfaction ratings do not correlate with learning gains.

Had the lecturer concerned been trained? If so, she might have looked at students’ lecture notes and problem sheets in week two and realised that she had misjudged the level – and acted accordingly. Was she inexperienced? If new teachers were sacked for initially setting the level too high, there would be few academics left. Were new teachers fully informed of departmental practices (eg, the level of the previous course)? And were new teachers monitored so that problems could be nipped in the bud? Were there mechanisms to consult with students early in courses so that issues could be addressed in time to be of value to that cohort (rather than the next year’s) and so that students could see that, even if you got things wrong, you were trying to get things right?

Relying on satisfaction data at the end of courses is too late for students and will inevitably lead to disputes around conflicting interpretations that cannot easily be resolved. If the real issue was student engagement, why not measure engagement instead of satisfaction?

Graham Gibbs
University of Winchester

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