A Point of View: When students answer back

  • 2 December 2012
  • From the section Magazine
A lecturer talks to his students

University students face a constant stream of questionnaires designed to assess the standard of their courses and check they are getting their money's worth, but is that really the point, asks historian Mary Beard.

When I was at university in the mid-1970s, one of my friends achieved a brief moment of student fame. At the end of another truly dreadful lecture on Homer, she went up to the offending professor and said absolutely straight: "Professor, your lectures are a disgrace to the university".

It was a line we chewed over - with admiration - in the bars and common rooms for weeks after and, as you can see, it has lived for almost 40 years in my own memory. Not that I can recall exactly what happened next. I suspect (it being the 70s) that the professor would have taken the student out for a drink, or maybe just tea, to talk about things in a friendly kind of way. And I'd be very surprised if there wasn't some improvement in his lectures.

You'd need the hide of an ox, which most academics don't have, to resist that kind of fully frontal approach.

There are of course hundreds of stories about what university lectures used to be like in the old days. Some of them true - and I can personally vouch for that particular one - some of them more dubious.

I have never really believed all those urban myths about absent minded professors turning up each week to lecture to an audience of one, and apparently failing to notice when the audience reduced to none, and lecturing on regardless.

And I'm not even sure that there were quite as many crusty old dons as we're led to suppose, who regurgitated year after year the same boring lectures from the same sheaf of increasingly yellowing notes. The mundane truth is that as long as there have been lectures, there have always been good lecturers and bad, sparkling ones and those who are frankly dull. No amount of staff training can change that, or not very much.

What is different now is that students don't actually have to face down the professor if they want to register their discontent with the lectures. In fact, in every university and college in the country, they are positively drowning in surveys and questionnaires, which try to assess their "satisfaction".

Over the last week I have been just one of thousands of lecturers distributing questionnaires to our students at the end of our lecture courses - as the university authorities now insist. We ask for their views on the content, the presentation, the organisation of the course, the quality of the handouts, the bibliographies or the Powerpoints, on a scale of excellent to poor, or one to seven.

Students in a lecture
Can you hear at the back?

On the forms I have been dutifully handing round to my audiences, we even ask the poor dears: "Do you have any difficulty hearing the lectures?" "Yes" or "No". An innocuous question maybe. But the rebel in me does think that if a group of highly intelligent 19-year olds have just dumbly sat through eight weeks of lectures without putting their hands up to say, "Err sorry, we can't hear you at the back", they hardly deserve to be at university.

Needless to say, this whole process is carefully governed by protocol. In my department we're not supposed simply to hand out these questionnaires and ask for them to be returned to our pigeon-holes - the students, we are told, tend to forget, so you get a very low response rate.

We have to distribute them for completion during one of the lectures themselves, but then there's the problem that the lecturer's presence might inhibit the students from filling in the forms honestly - because we might appear threatening, you see. So we are supposed to withdraw from the lecture-room for five minutes, to allow them space and privacy to do it. I'll fess up, I don't always do that.

And, it's not just lectures either, the students also have surveys to complete on their tutors and tutorials, on the overall teaching provision, on their social and sports facilities. And as if that's not enough, there's the centralised, online National Student Survey, backed by the Higher Education Funding Councils, which asks undergraduates across the land to say how good their lecturers are at explaining things, how enthusiastic they are, how interesting they make the course and so on.

It's not surprising that my students sometimes complain of the same kind of survey-fatigue that I feel when I'm handed the customer satisfaction form each time I take my car to the local garage.

Before half the students listening start to protest, let me insist that I'm dead keen to know what they think of my teaching, what they think works and what doesn't. Why on earth would you go into university teaching if you didn't give a toss what the students thought?

I can see, too, that when you're paying up to £9,000 a year for the privilege of being at university, you want to make it pretty clear if you feel you're not getting your money's worth (that's where consumer culture really does meet the life of learning). And of course, over the years, I have received all kinds of useful comments and criticisms that may well have been easier to make anonymously. The most useful ones, in fact, have come when I've abandoned the standard issue tick-box questionnaire form and just distributed a blank piece of paper and asked every student to write a paragraph on how they would improve the course. I'm still following some of those suggestions.

But there are downsides to this obsession with questionnaires too, some of them pretty obvious - like the power without responsibility that the cloak of anonymity allows. I've been very lucky here and my students are a sensible bunch. I've escaped with not much worse than a few marginal notes along the lines of: "Can't you get a new coat?" or "You could look great with a makeover Prof Beard", all fairly friendly banter - though, the fact is, if I wrote something like that about them on a student report form I'd almost certainly get a ticking off.

Student asleep in a lecture hall
The surveys are designed to enhance the student learning experience

But if you want a taste of the depths to which comments on this kind of survey can sink, then take a look at the US website RateMyProfessor - which is the university equivalent of TripAdvisor, and includes a "hotness" rating for the professor concerned. Then think about the implications of taking the responses to these questionnaires into account, as universities increasingly do, when the lecturer comes up for promotion or a pay rise.

But I'm more bothered by the underlying assumptions about what makes good university teaching that lie behind many of these surveys. You can see them particularly clearly in the National Student Survey, and the reams of student feedback it publishes online - explicitly, so it says, to help prospective students choose a good course, and to help universities "enhance the student learning experience".

I'm not just talking about its stress on what salary a student can expect to earn when they finish their degree, which doesn't in my view have very much to do with "the learning experience", or the implied insistence that university lecturers should be unremittingly enthusiastic about what they teach, I've actually found that quite a lot of students rather appreciate a healthy dose of down-beat realism. But it's the simple idea, embedded in the whole philosophy of the National Survey, that you can tell a good course by its satisfied students, that really bugs me.

OK, I can see how at first sight that might seem obvious. Who, after all, wants to see their kids go off to university, at great expense, for a diet of dis-satisfaction? But, from where I sit, dissatisfaction and discomfort have their own, important, role to play in a good university education. We're aiming to push our students to think differently, to move out of their intellectual comfort zone, to read and discuss texts that are almost too hard for them to manage. It is, and it's meant to be, destabilizing.

At the same time, we're urging them never to be satisfied with the arguments they are presented with, never to take things on trust, always to challenge, always to see the weak points, or to want to push the argument further. Then along comes the National Survey, treats them as consumers, and asks them if they're satisfied.

I find myself thinking "I jolly well hope they're not", or at least, not yet. For maybe the right time to be asking someone about what they got out of their course at university is not when they are still in it, or as they are just leaving it, but five, 10, 20 years later, when they've got some perspective on what difference it made to their lives.

Because the truth is, when you meet a group of ex-students years after they've left, you can pretty well guarantee that one of their commonest refrains will be, "Do you know what, I think in an odd way I learned most from that course I used to hate."

I'm not sure that's true for those lectures on Homer, though.

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