Saturday, 20 June 2015

Compulsory and Anonymous Student Feedback – To what extent are they objective, fair and reliable?

Student feedback is seen as an important element in any university quality assurance system. It is a measure of the extent our ‘customers’ are satisfied with the ‘services’ offered to them. Except, that here our ‘customers’ are of a different breed. We have all been students at some point in our life. In the 21st Century we are all lifelong learners, and whenever we are engaged in a training programme, or in studies, we are quickly overtaken by the ‘student mentality’. 

So what are students expecting in reality?

Although we should not generalize, a big portion of the student community will want to first pass the exams. So if the exams are easy, and tips have been well given, at the end they will be quite happy. The second element is they want minimum coursework, minimum attendance, a complacent lecturer who understands them, and who is not ‘strict’ so that they face less stress and better outcome from the studies.

The final element is that they still want to get maximum knowledge and spoon feeding from the lecturer despite point 2 above. So that is kind of a tricky situation isn’t it? Yet feedback is an important element to improve courses, and to ensure the needs of all stakeholders are met to a satisfactory extent.

So, should feedback be compulsory, and should it be anonymous?

Getting student to give feedback at the University of Mauritius has always been a big challenge. In the past there was an attempt to make it compulsory, prior to re-registration of students for the next year. This resulted in a more or less robotic filling of feedback just to get access to the module enrolment system. The approach was abandoned, and the university has many difficulties, despite sensitizing students about the need to fill in the feedback sheets.
The main reason provided by the student community for not providing feedback was that they feared being penalized if they provided ‘bad’ feedback on a lecturer. While some benefit of doubt could be given to this excuse, it did not in itself provided a solid justification for the student community for not giving feedback.

So the University’s senate recently decided to make the feedback compulsory again (and this time, against a penalty to be debarred from the exams if same was not provided), and ensured students that feedback would be fully anonymous to quash any fears of penalization. Does this really work?  I am not sure that as an educator, I will agree with both measures. I do not think in the first place, that feedback should be compulsory – it should rather be voluntary to ensure objective and reliable feedback is received. Second, I don’t think its best to force feedback to be anonymous. Rather it should be open, non-anonymous, and form an integral part of the course.
When feedback is compulsory there are two flaws that would arise:
  • Students will complete the feedback to achieve something which is more important (i.e. sit for exams) and therefore the feedback is relegated as a means only. Many of the feedback I checked were similar comments for all modules taught by different lecturers. They merely copy-paste. In such situations, we often see contradictive comments from students.
  • Being compulsory, means almost 99% of students who are really willing to sit for exams will actually fill in the feedback. However, the university does not apply the rule of 80% compulsory attendance, to be allowed to sit for exams. So in this case and very often it’s the case that about 50% of the students would not come to any class, or seldom come to class, yet they will give feedback!
Can we therefore reasonably take these feedback as reliable? I would doubt….

The problem is now amplified with the feedback being anonymous. First, we cannot filter out outliers from the feedback provided, as we will have the flawed assumption that all those who provided feedback were regular attendees in the class. We cannot have any means to cross check attendance regularity with feedback provided. This also hinders educational research.

The other issue with anonymity is that it fosters a culture of mistrust and provides not only a platform for honest feedback but also for unfounded and incorrect statements to be formulated. This type of approach is not in line with 21st Century education practices where the role of the teacher and the student are different than how it used to be decades before.
The elements of mutual respect, autonomy, trust and community building around a course, do not concur with the concept of traditional student feedback through compulsion and anonymity. We have tried this in an online module offered to 800 students a few years ago, and that was the best means to work in a collaborative and conducive learning environment to foster a fruitful teacher-student relationship mirroring closely the realities and exigencies of 21st century education.