Friday, 12 May 2017

Asking what they want won’t tell us what they need. Discuss. By Peter G Knight School of Geography, Geology and Environment, Keele University

In one of my 1st-year tutorial exercises early in each academic year I ask the new students whether they trust their lecturers and whether they believe what they are told in lectures. The students normally say that they do trust us, and then we have the whole conversation about reliability of sources and the importance of checking everything - including what they are told in lectures - against evidence and peer-reviewed publications. It is an important exercise, but looking at this year’s student evaluations of my teaching I wonder whether I am asking the question at the wrong point in the students’ careers.

It is that time of year now when many of us are getting feedback on our teaching from students as they complete their end-of-year module evaluation forms. When I started lecturing 30 years ago there were no such forms, and I confess with some shame to having played a substantial role in developing and introducing student evaluations. The kinds of feedback that we can pick up through these anonymous forms, or, increasingly, anonymous online surveys, are different from the feedback we used to get in the old days by having conversations with our students. Perhaps the anonymity and distance of the feedback form, rather like the distance afforded by interactions on social media, change the way that people respond when asked to offer, or vent, an opinion. Even in the years since we started using student evaluations of teaching, gradual changes in the nature of the students’ comments have reflected significant changes in our learning and teaching environment.

Even in the best-case scenario, student feedback forms are to be treated with extreme caution, especially when they are read by career-young teaching staff. The level of polite professionalism that we try to maintain in our own communications with students is not always reciprocated by some individuals as they deliver their anonymous feedback to us. In my current role I see feedback addressed to a lot of different staff, including inexperienced staff who are still being mentored, and I try to warn them, before they look at their first batch of forms, to be ready for the small percentage of responses that will be either irrationally hateful or inappropriately affectionate. At each end of the spectrum, there are usually a few forms that challenge the notion that every student’s opinion is a valid contribution to our course development process. One of my personal favourites was a verdict passed on my teaching by an anonymous student asked to comment on the merits and shortcomings of one of my modules, who wrote, drawing together his or her reflections on my year’s pedagogic efforts: “Dr Knight looks like a turtle”.

One of the biggest changes revealed by looking back over years of feedback on my modules is the change in student expectations. On the oldest forms I see students congratulating me for including projected 35mm photographic slides in my lectures. I used the occasional OHP if I wanted to push out the technological boat. The students were very happy with that. Gradually the comments changed to reflect the students’ satisfaction or boredom with PowerPoints, Prezi presentations, YouTube pre-lectures, the flipped classroom and a succession of virtual learning environments from WebCT (remember that?) through to Blackboard. The technological support that students now take for granted was not even imagined by previous generations. Students now will quickly complain about tutors who don’t provide online notes, copies of the slides, very specific set readings, and, now, captured recordings of the lectures themselves. But the students are quite right to expect the latest and best technology, and their feedback (if given thoughtfully) can help us to use it effectively.

Another change in student expectations, beyond the merely technical, is an increasingly prevalent assumption that learning should come easily. Perhaps it is connected to changes in technology. Almost any kind of basic information is now just a few seconds away, a few mobile thumb-clicks away, on Google. Even for more sophisticated academic materials Google Scholar, Web of Science, or the academic search engine of your choice makes even the CD databases of a few years ago seem stone age in comparison. I was brought up on index cards. I was trained to expect learning to be hard work. When you get right into the intellectual puzzles, learning still is hard work, but some students find this to be an unacceptable surprise. Only once, so far, has a student actually told me that they believe their £9,000 fees pay for the hard work to be done by me, rather than by them, but that kind of thinking is out there in the classroom now.

Increasingly over the last few years student feedback on my modules has started to include complaints that my teaching has given the students difficult intellectual challenges, or has required them to search for literature themselves, or has expected them come up with their own research-project designs. This year one final-year student wrote in the “what could be improved about this module” box that I raised lots of questions for long discussions instead of just telling them the answers. I am sure that a few years ago, with a different generation of students, that comment would have gone into the “what went well in this module” box. Most students don’t like clashing deadlines, and most of us may agree with them, but if one of the learning outcomes of a study-skills module is to develop time-management skills, then a deliberately clashed deadline is a learning opportunity. In a research-design module, giving students a ready-made project deprives them of project-formulation experience that will be invaluable to them in future employment. If you are learning a difficult analytical technique, skipping the difficult or boring bits is not good training. We have to recognise that sometimes, a bit like being at the gym, gain requires pain. Learning requires hard work on the part of the students, not just their teachers.

It is important to recognise and respond to student feedback on our modules even if sometimes we think the student is missing the point, or if a poorly designed questionnaire has failed to deliver our questions effectively. Galling though it is when we know that the assessment criteria are clearly set out in the easily accessible handbook, and that they were explained at length in the opening lecture, to have a student say on the feedback form that no, the assessment criteria were not made clear in advance, we can’t just shrug it off. We must consider why, despite all our efforts, this student did not believe the assessment criteria to have been made clear. That piece of student feedback should lead us to look again at the handbook, the timetable, our lecture resources, the scheduling of big nights at the Students’ Union, or whatever else might be contributing to the problem. What we should not do is just ignore the feedback. If that were our plan, we should not ask for feedback in the first place.

But this leads us to a key question. What is it that we are asking for? We sometimes talk about “student satisfaction surveys”, as if satisfaction will be the measure of our teaching quality. It won’t. This is becoming very important as we anticipate the incorporation of student feedback into the TEF. Ensuring students’ short-term satisfaction in a way that it will be reflected in their feedback is a different matter from ensuring their long-term learning, which might be most effectively won by painful hard work. If I were to design a module to make students give me the best feedback, it would not look the same as a module designed for the best learning outcomes. The danger in adjusting modules in response to poorly designed “satisfaction” surveys is that a student’s satisfaction may not equate to their learning gain. I currently lead two 3rd-year modules. One I would describe as competent but dull in its design, while the other has won external recognition as one of the UK’s most challenging, exciting and innovative modules. The competent but dull module has repeatedly and consistently scored 100% positive student satisfaction over the last few years. The exciting and innovative module has so far never scored 100%.

We altered some of our student evaluation questions recently in light of changes to the questions in the National Student Survey. One of our new questions is about whether students feel that staff value, and act upon, student feedback. As part of an institution and a subject area that genuinely does value and act upon student feedback I was confident that the responses to this question would be uniformly positive, but they were not. In the feedback on one of my modules, one student wrote in the “what could be improved” box that I seemed to teach the module the way I wanted to, rather than the way the student would have liked. They threw in for good measure the observation that this was arrogant and condescending of me. An old-timer like me does not get upset by personal comments as much as some younger colleagues may do, but I do take care to think them through. Reflecting on that particular comment I do believe that, on the whole, staff are well placed to know both what students will like and how students will most effectively learn. We try to strike the best balance between those, recognising that students may learn better if they are learning in a way that they enjoy, but also that some learning has to be hard won. From the student’s perspective, sometimes, only part of that is obvious.

That discussion that I have with the 1st-years about whether they trust their lecturers usually includes me inviting them to set out their own programme for the remainder of the course. Most years, the students decide that they would prefer me to do it, because, they say, at this stage in their careers they do not know what they need to learn or what is the best way to learn it. As one of them once said, their dentist never asks them how to proceed with the treatment, and they are happy to trust his judgement. I use that example myself now in those discussions, and ask them whether attending classes and doing assessments is a bit like going to the dentist: not always what they would choose to do for fun, but worthwhile and important nevertheless. If the students can see that the pain of a nine o’clock lecture or a challenging assignment is leading to an eventual benefit, and if we can earn and maintain their trust in us to be doing what is best for them when we schedule those classes and set those assessments, perhaps we can all do our best work.

So perhaps that is the key question that is missing from our surveys: do you trust your tutor to be doing what is best for your learning? If we have not earned their trust, that is something we really need to find out about. I don’t need an evaluation to find out whether I look like a turtle or if I am popular with the students. I need it to check whether they feel they can trust me to be doing a good job.

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Asking what they want won’t tell us what they need. Discuss. by Peter G Knight, School of Geography, Geology and Environment, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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