A Point of View: When students answer back

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.

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Mary Beard
  • Historian Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University
  • A Point of View broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT

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.

The National Student Survey

Student put their hands up

Students choose from six satisfaction ratings:

  • Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching
  • The timetable works efficiently as far as my activities are concerned
  • The course has helped me to present myself with confidence
  • As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems
  • My communication skills have improved

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?

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I've escaped with not much worse than 'You could look great with a makeover Prof Beard'”

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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".

Lecturers of days gone by

Antony Sher as Howard Kirk

In Malcolm Bradbury's novel The History Man, the libidinous lecturer Howard Kirk had an unconventional way of dealing with his critics - he either accused them of being enemies of the revolution, or if they were women, he would try to seduce them.

And in Lucky Jim, author Kingsley Amis creates a scene where the lecturer Jim Dixon gets uncontrollably drunk before he has to give an important seminar.

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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Here is a selection of your comments.

As an academic, but in a technical discipline, I agree wholeheartedly with Mary Beard's comments. I was in fact a Cambridge student of the same era as Mary, and recall mostly excellent and inspiring lecturers. Only two (brave ones) of them ever put out questionnaires, and I recall my responses were less responsible and considerate than they should have been. As an academic now myself, I teach a very challenging module, and would be worried if my approval rating edged towards the top of our internal table. What I value more is that an external examiner rates the quality and standard of my exams highly and that the pass rate is still high. In other countries students are asked not about their level of satisfaction, but whether they are being challenged to learn. Surveys could also be made more reliable by using standard statistical techniques to remove "outliers" - unrepresentative respondents to love or hate their teachers too much to be objective.. It is not unusual to find an individual keen to use a survey as a weapon to vent their frustration, but there should be better ways to address such feelings. League table scores invite fine-scale comparisons which are invalid because we have such diversity in the system that the experiences are not directly comparable.

David Bebbington, Colchester

To suggest that students are asked to read texts that are almost too hard for them to manage is offensive. My lectures, which I rarely have the heart to attend, revolve around a crude delivery of recycled notes and slideshows used last year, the year before, and the year before that. The content is stale and lecturers add no value to what are essentially excerpts from apparently "destabilising" textbooks. Half of the lecturers I experience my education through are simply narrow-minded babysitters that ensure you manage a minimum attendance rate whilst they read out words displayed by a projector plastered across a white screen. The slideshows they attempt to construct themselves are a mish-mash of quotes taken out of context which mis-teach students. In the face of a well-researched, originally-styled assignment, they tremble and score down pieces of prose because they fail to value their merits. They preach the value of reasoning and evaluation, but really can only stick to a selection of arguments they know from a limited box. Maybe it's just my lecturers, but today's university teachers cannot foster an exertion on intellectual boundaries because even when equipped with their own army of researchers (students), they fail to learn from them themselves. Some subjects will never grow with the mundane parrots that students at my university are taught to be.

Rakim, UK

Whilst totally agreeing with Mary Beard, I have seen one further side effect of student feedback. Some students will relate their evaluations to how well they did in assignments. Where they do badly they will grade the module badly, taking no responsibility for their own input into the assignment. I have noticed this increasingly over the last few years in the subject area I lead - it can often lead to a blame culture, where some university students increasingly expect to be spoon-fed.

Greg, Northampton

Thank you Prof Beard for reminding the wider public about the role of tutorials (and tutors). As a tutor/seminar leader at Durham University, I get to interact and know students far better in small group sessions than the lecturers and professors do in the plenary. We tutors listen to their presentations, monitor discussions and mark their essays. We remember their names, pay them compliments on their festive knitwear, introduce them to the notion of critical thinking and make sure they are not citing the Daily Mail as an academic source (and yes, I discourage my lot from referencing the BBC as an academic source as well). Our meagre honorarium suggests we are clearly not in it for the money. The majority of us do not even have a designated office space, nor clear prospects of a job upon completion of our doctorates. And yet we are being evaluated in the student surveys as an integral part of faculty staff - which should suggest a broader acknowledgement of our role and contribution to academic life. My colleagues and I have so far received positive student feedback and good tips for improvement - but is it wise for top universities to expose their student satisfaction results to a potentially risky group of (underpaid, overworked and often poorly trained) teachers? This is something that might need radical rethinking in the near future. Though, in fairness to my category, we tutors are generally better dressed than veteran academics, and I have never received any style advice from an 18 year old, which I am sure accounts for improvements in the overall learning experience of the Durham undergrads.

Alice Panepinto, Durham

As a Uni lecturer in China, I am spared the customer satisfaction survey, and dare say I would fail it as I tend to push my students a lot harder than their Chinese teachers. The problem with the system in China is that pay rates and promotions are intrinsically linked to student performance and student satisfaction, which is somewhat disingenuous since it doesn't push good teaching but rather good entertainment. The students are able to cheat on exams or plagiarize in papers because it boosts their marks (not that they can fail - the Uni system in China does not permit failure) and teachers turn a blind eye because their academic existence depends on this. Having been told that I'm not the most popular Foreign Teacher is a badge of honour I wear proudly because it means I'm doing exactly what Beard says - I'm getting them out of their comfort zone and pushing them to places they wouldn't willingly go themselves.

Rob Dahling, Beijing

Well said! When I attended CalTech in the 70's, there were no such surveys, and I recall feeling at times that neither my opinion nor my time was valued. I retrospectively admire the intense effort expended to make every minute of lecture count. In my first two undergrad years, I had no voice, yet my lecturers were universally at least good and mostly excellent. After that, I voted with my feet. Where that isn't enough, institutionalized feedback might be appropriate, but I would leave the initiative to the student.

Tom Burton, Hawaii

The hierarchy of learning always used to be that school taught you to learn the answer; university taught you how to work out the answer when given a question; and post graduate studies taught you how to ask the right question in the first place. The move of students from privileged recipients of wisdom, to 'entitled' consumers has led to a number of dysfunctional behaviours in the University system. The most destructive, is the removal of the challenge that would lead students to be those that would seek answers, not just repeat them. Unfortunately, the need to meet the contract between students and faculty has moved both the assessment criteria for university courses, and the way those courses are taught, back down the scale to a high-school format 'learn the answer' system. Albeit one where you cook for yourself in the evening. I'm not part of the university system, but I am a consumer of its products, employing graduates, and this shift in the attitude of many university students has been marked over the last 5 years.

Tom Watt, St Ives

I'm a university student currently awaiting feedback forms with some anticipation. My first term at university is drawing to a close and, so far, I've been less than impressed with the standard of the lecturing. In four of my six modules, the weekly lecture is a regurgitation of the reading we are supposed to do before the lecture. Needless to say, people have quickly cottoned on to this and now either do the reading and don't go to the lecture, or go to the lecture and don't do the reading. I recently counted the attendance at a lecture. It was around 40. At the start of the term, it was well over 150. Now, I get that we are supposed to do our own work, but currently I'm paying £9000 a year for access to a library, and a library that doesn't have enough copies of the books we are required to read. My satisfaction, in this case, has nothing to do with the quality of the arguments I hear, it has to do with the total lack of effort being put into some of the lectures. I know for a fact that there is a great deal of pressure on academics to publish. The problem is, students are suffering as a result.

Ed, Durham

I'm currently a student, and most of my fellow lecture attendees vote with their feet rather than the end-of-course forms. If they don't think a lecturer is much cop, they won't bother turning up. There are some lectures I have been in that out of 160 students, less than half turn up. The University has recently been trying to crack down on these absentees, but - frankly - until they get lecturers that students think are "good enough", then people will continue to abstain.

Andrew Webb, Leeds

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