Asking students to fill in so-called "happy" forms to assess their lecturers may damage rather than improve teaching, according to Lee Harvey of the University of Central England.
The widespread use of course questionnaires to monitor teaching standards may reveal whether lecturers are enthusiastic, turn up on time or assess work promptly. But they only finger very bad teaching while the mildly bad will slip through the net, he says.
Even when problems are thrown up there may be no mechanism to solve them. "It is debatable how serious we really are about giving students control over the educational process and their post- educational lives," Professor Harvey writes in a paper for the Society for Research into Higher Education.
Student evaluation is gaining popularity in universities and many national external monitoring systems require them. But they could lull institutions into believing they are "doing something".
"Learners are often not involved in formulating the questionnaires and the questions tend to represent the interests of teachers and their managers," Professor Harvey says. "Most damning, happy forms rarely ask students to reflect on their learning rather than the lecturers' teaching."
He proposes broader satisfaction surveys. Students must be involved in identifying areas of concern if such surveys are to have any meaning. And there must be clear follow-up.
Students should be encouraged to be critical. "This goes beyond requiring students to learn a body of knowledge and be able to apply it analytically," he says. "Developing a critical approach to learning is about challenging preconceptions, both those of the learner and the teacher."
Students will gain confidence to assess and develop knowledge for themselves rather than submitting packaged chunks to an assessor.
"It treats students as intellectual performers rather than as compliant audience," Professor Harvey concludes.