Reading the responses from students to one’s teaching is all too often painful. Even for a course that has gone reasonably well you will probably get as many panning you for making it too simple as complaining it was impossibly hard. Indeed, given a bunch of responses like that you can probably assume you got it about right, since it is likely to be impossible to please everyone regardless of their backgrounds. If you have made any slip-ups in the handouts, even ones as trivial as a missing bracket or subscript which have instantly been corrected in person in the lectures, you are still liable to be stung by received criticism, possibly even by invective. And then there are the casual insults. Some which have come my way may be more due to my gender than my teaching style. Two stand out as being particularly irrelevant, almost funny but not quite, commenting on my dress style: ‘where does she get her clothes, the Oxfam shop?’ and ‘she looks like a women’s lib officer’. If someone can let me know what such a person wears then I’ll know quite how insulted to be, though I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
Therein lies a key problem with using student questionnaires as a measure of quality of the teaching. Studies have shown (see e.g. Basow and Silberg for university lecturers and Potvin et al regarding high school students attitudes to male and female science teachers) that students tend to evaluate female lecturers as less competent than equivalent male ones. Likewise, black teachers are scored worse than white faculty (see here). In other words, unconscious bias is rife here whether or not explicit comments about dress sense – or any other attribute – are made. As a minority, individuals will be judged more harshly whatever their actual skill level.
Of course students like lecturers who make them feel comfortable, make them think that a high class lecture is being given regardless of whether they are actually learning anything. A classic experiment in 1970 (giving rise to something known as the Dr Fox effect) charged an actor to give a lecture full of meaningless jargon but in a very ‘expressive’ way. The students thought he (I assume it was a male actor) was great, despite the fact the material covered was meaningless junk. (Sound a bit like Alan Sokal’s considerably later spoof during the Science Wars?). Thus a satisfied student audience is no recipe for learning success.
A culturally out-of-step lecturer can receive scathing feedback because the audience don’t feel at ease with an alien style. As an example I’d cite a British lecturer I knew with a well-developed sarcastic wit lightly laced with irony who was loathed by an American audience who did not understand the implicit humour at all; loathed to the extent that he was nearly denied tenure regardless of any underlying excellence. Furthermore, some courses are inherently more interesting to their audience than others simply because some are there as necessary scaffolds on which to build the more interesting material. Those giving the latter will almost inevitably fare better than the former regardless of how charismatic or competent (not the same thing) they are.
And, as the Dr Fox experiment and later equivalent studies demonstrate, whether a lecturer is liked has little to do with what the students actually take in or how they will do in any subsequent assessment. This was neatly summed up in an email I received recently from a relatively early career lecturer who sadly said ‘but I got some horrible horrible student feedback on my teaching, but now I am marking their exams and they have done really well….so although they hate me they actually learned a lot…which makes it more bearable.’ I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is an inverse relationship between student evaluations and exam performance but I’m not sure there is any neat direct correlation either.
Which means that a VC who introduces a policy saying that lecturers whose feedback falls below some specific numerical score will be required to attend an ‘informal capability meeting’ is going to be on shaky ground. This, according to the THE, is what is being contemplated at the University of Surrey. As the sub-header to the article says, lecturers will be ‘at [the] mercy of students‘ if this plan goes ahead. Of course any university leadership should wish to push up the standards of their teaching and it is reasonable to expect lecturers to pull their socks up if they are doing badly. But simply using a crude average of some hostile students’ feedback may not be an optimum strategy.
Now of course feedback can be constructive. I will ever be grateful to the student who (many years ago I hasten to say) mildly pointed out I had written an equation containing the letter ‘c’ on both sides: in one case I was using it to mean some constant, in the other the speed of light. Amazingly I hadn’t noticed what I was doing since both seemed so naturally ‘right’, but the students had every right to complain; it was incompetent. Other feedback may be similarly constructive when something that seems natural to a lecturer is all wrong, particularly if there is a generational change in expectations. Additionally, everyone knows a lecturer who is inaudible beyond the first two rows (who should certainly use a mike), or who is invariably late and disorganised, either of whom may – or may not – get slated in evaluations. But the ones who really need attention are the ones whose lectures are full of undefined jargon, utter an incoherent stream of consciousness tirade or who assume far more knowledge than the class actually has been able to acquire. Simply using some raw numerical metric, without digging beneath the surface to analyse what factors are feeding into the score, strikes me as unwise and unlikely actually to lead to better outcomes for the students or the university.