The tyranny of student feedback

Early module feedback has just been collected and no doubt management will seize this as another heavy stick to beat the teaching staff, already shattered by the goings on of the last few years. Whatever the results for individual lecturers, there is an undeniable trend. Students have lower attention spans and are enthusiastic complainers; feedback is more volatile than ever.

Management say that we need to improve our NSS scores in order to compete with other institutions. This may have value if student opinion is considered the prime measure by which to judge the quality of the education at universities. But plenty of evidence suggests it is not.

In the age of the screen, we observe that students struggle to concentrate for long. Lack of work effort is an inevitable consequence. Significantly, they don’t like to read books. They are quick to claim that their lectures are boring or uninteresting, or proffer any number of reasons why they don’t feel ‘engaged’ in their classes.

The question is how much has bad feedback to do with the actual teaching and how much with students’ lack of subject interest or lack of application. Some students choose their subject based on employment prospects rather than intrinsic interest. Subjects that require a lot of classroom teaching, the highly employable sciences for instance, are more likely to suffer from unfavourable feedback. In arts subjects, especially Fine Arts and Fashion, there is far more emphasis on production, although performance subjects like Music require a sound theoretical knowledge base for any serious student. Maybe that’s why Music at Kingston has had problems in the recent past: our students don’t like theory just as they don’t like books.

We are in danger of enslavement to student feedback. Academics must ask themselves what their teaching is trying to achieve. For senior management it is simple: good pass rates, a high number of good degrees, and, most important of all, good NSS scores. So teachers feel constrained to aim for these, even as we wonder about the old university ideal of acquiring deep understanding and learning to think. Our bottom line for teaching is whether the students, with appropriate levels of study effort, acquire the requisite knowledge and perform well in assessments. From their point of view, success would seem to be the highest grades for the least effort, good teaching the classes that divert them the most from the time-consuming task of thorough learning. Student satisfaction and student achievement are not necessarily the same thing.

Unfortunately management no longer appreciates this. Hence the pressure on staff increases, their demoralisation gets worse; eventually this makes it harder than ever to please the students. The proliferation of feedback at Kingston is all part of the University’s malaise, and that of higher education in the UK. Even as our students think they are improving the teaching through critical feedback, they are in fact hastening its decline.

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