Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Is the customer always right?

Education at all levels is awash with evaluation forms and needs analysis surveys. We all want feedback but are we asking the right questions? Development projects are based on needs analysis, assuming that we should only develop services that customers/staff/students really require. The problem with this approach is that you don't need what you don't know. If we only designed products and services that people needed we would never have had cars, television, computers, mobiles or the internet. No-one needed them until they had been developed. So asking for needs can help but is often not the right approach for innovation. The same applies to student satisfaction. We assume that if students are satisfied with a course then the teacher has done a good job and the students have learnt a lot. Or have they?

Education, unlike products and services, cannot be judged on simple customer satisfaction. Students are satisfied if they get a good grade but that doesn't always mean that they have learnt very much or that the course was well designed. An article on The Conversation, Students don’t know what’s best for their own learning, highlights the problems of judging education by satisfaction. Students tend to give good evaluations to teachers who don't demand too much, are entertaining and give them good grades. Those who make them work hard and don't serve all the answers on a plate are generally less popular. Teachers who try innovative new methods that force students to take charge of their learning and really grapple with working out concepts for themselves often face negative evaluations and possibly a resultant stern talk from their head of department. Many students (and teachers) mistake content for learning.

That is why many students assume that reading or highlighting passages in their text-book, or merely listening to a lecture, is enough to produce learning. They mistake the ease of the task with greater knowledge. Time-consuming and effortful tasks, like self-testing their knowledge, are consequently seen by students as less efficient for their learning, despite the fact that the more difficult tasks produce the most learning.

Student evaluations can therefore be dangerously misleading and result in "easy" courses being encouraged and more demanding courses modified to please the customers. Lectures are still popular because they provide the "answers" in one easily digestible session and many still equate lecturing with teaching. As a result students will generally give positive evaluations to teachers who give them what they expected. Seeing this as a measure of course quality can have serious consequences according to the article.

... universities that rely on student evaluations are likely to punish good teachers and encourage those who simply make it easy for students. Most universities have codes of conduct that require decisions to be made on valid evidence. Any manager discussing student evaluations when reviewing lecturers’ performance is probably breaching that part of their own job requirements. Given the evidence, student evaluations are a distraction from the responsibility to provide the best possible education for the nation.

Of course it is good to find out what students thought of a course but we need to steer away from simply measuring satisfaction and provide them with a new set of rubrics that allow them to gauge their effort, collaboration, acquisition of new skills and how they have met new challenges. This type of evaluation takes time to learn but that way we will get more reliable criteria for assessing course quality. At the end of a good course you may feel rather tired, maybe irritated and sore but you also realise that you've achieved something. We need to learn to appreciate teaching that challenges us and pushes us forward even if it hurts a bit. 


  1. Really interesting article - and so true! How to avoid asking wrong questions and therefore getting nonsense answers? Apply growth mindset already when students sign up for the course? Make them review how they can take more responsibility in their learning then expecting to be spoon fed? Any suggestion? Anyone?