Challenging misconceptions

Faculty members often reveal feelings of frustration and distrust towards the use of student feedback as part of the teaching and learning process. Despite the divergent debates around the potential use of student feedback and how it influences university teaching practice, the collection of student feedback has however become common practice in many universities across the world (Keane & Labhrainn, 2005; Richardson, 2005; Alderman, Towers & Bannah, 2012; Benton & Ryalls, 2016). Although some faculty frustration about the misuse of student feedback may be valid, much of the typical arguments against student feedback have been refuted by research (Benton & Ryalls, IDEA Centre, 2016):


“Tough” Demanding Teachers Receive Lower Student Feedback rates
The cynical assumptions underpinning these types of assertions are that students are interested only in grades and do not want to be challenged in their educations. But in a study involving over 50,000 classes across eight academic disciplines, Centra (2003) found that the grade students expected to earn was only weakly related to student feedback. Others have similarly reported low, positive correlations (Braskamp & Ory, 1994; Centra, 2003; Feldman, 1976; Howard & Maxwell, 1980, 1982; Marsh & Dunkin, 1997; Marsh & Roche, 2000). Even this low positive correlation between grades and ratings may not necessarily indicate that lecturers are lowering standards to get higher ratings. It could well indicate that students who learn more earn higher grades and assign higher ratings, which supports the validity of student feedback. A third possibility is that student characteristics, such as motivation and interest in the subject matter, could lead to greater learning and, therefore, higher grades and student ratings (McKeachie, 1997). Moreover, research conducted in nearly 500,000 classes across more than 300 institutions revealed that lecturers are more likely to earn high student feedback when their students say their teacher challenged them and had high achievement standards (Benton, Guo, Li, & Gross, 2013).


Students are not Qualified to Judge Teaching Effectiveness
Arguing that the worst or most lenient teachers receive the highest ratings rests upon another fraudulent assumption: students are not qualified to judge teaching effectiveness. Understandably, we may be put off when the evaluators of our work are less educated than we are. How can we trust undergraduate students to render valid judgments about our teaching effectiveness when most of them have never taught? Perhaps an analogy from another profession may be of use in answering this question. Logically, one important factor in physician evaluation would be patient ratings of experiences with their physician that include perceptions of progress in recovery, the physician’s interpersonal skills, quality of care, and so forth (Manary, Boulding, Staelin, & Glickman, 2013). Patients are not doctors, but ignoring the input of patients about their doctors would be foolish. Students are not professors, but the same logic applies—ignoring student input is foolish. In fact, in a review of 31 studies, Feldman (1989a) found that student views of what constitutes effective teaching are very similar to those of faculty (average correlation = .71).


Student Feedback Data is Unreliable
Reliability refers to consistency, and well-constructed student feedback has a great deal of it (see review by Benton & Cashin, 2014). Actually, student feedback within the same class tends to be highly consistent in students’ own ratings, in ratings over students within the same class, and in ratings of the same lecturer across multiple courses.


Personal Factors Unrelated to Learning Influence Ratings
In studies of student feedback collected in actual classes, gender is only weakly related to ratings (see literature reviews by Benton & Cashin, 2011, 2014). Further, Li, Benton, and Ryalls (in press) analyzed data collected from IDEA student feedback in over 15,000 classes taught by female instructors and over 12,000 taught by male instructors. Multiple institutions, Carnegie classifications, and disciplines were represented. The authors found no differences in overall ratings of teaching, the course, and average student progress on relevant learning objectives.


Millennial Students are more Punishing in their Ratings
Every generation of teachers has probably uttered something like, “the students of today are not like the ones I taught years ago.” So, no surprise, the millennial generation is getting its turn to be criticized. Members of the millennial generation, ranging in birth dates from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, are believed to share common characteristics, one of which is a sense of entitlement (Nilson, 2013; Twenge, 2006). Nilson (2013) has argued that millennial students feel entitled to receive high grades without putting out much effort. Accordingly, some teachers fear that millennial students will be even more likely than prior generations to assign low ratings to lecturers who give lower than expected grades. In point of fact, average overall ratings of the lecturers and course have increased steadily since 2002 (Benton et al, 2015), which refutes the notion that millennials tend to be more “punishing” in their ratings.