|Understanding the Nature and Limitations of Student Feedback on Teaching|
|[Last modified January 2007]|
Teaching is a complex activity involving an intricate interplay between the subject content, the instructional objectives, the teacher, the students, and the environment. Thus, student feedback alone is never sufficient to make a valid judgment about overall teaching effectiveness.
However, students, as direct recipients of our teaching, are able to provide valuable information on how well our teaching has ‘reached’ them educationally, and the extent to which they are motivated to learn. Students are also able to give first-hand feedback on their interactions with the teacher within and outside the classroom. Therefore, their feedback is an important source of data for evaluating and improving teaching, and enhancing student learning. A study of the attitudes and behaviours of the PolyU students in filling out the SFQ forms has shown that PolyU students generally based their ratings on meaningful criteria and interpretations. Their ratings are not spurious or erratic, but rather, a rough indicator of the extent to which they feel that the teaching has enabled them to learn or comprehend the subject matter. The specific criteria that students used in arriving at their ratings for some typical items are shown in Tables 1 - 6.
Yet, it is also clear that student feedback is not entirely objective, nor is it a precise measure of teaching quality. The same study shows that students’ reactions to teaching are influenced by the subject nature, students’ ability and prior knowledge of the subject matter, interests and motivation, and their conceptions of what constitutes ‘good teaching’. Table 7 shows how student ratings may be influenced by the various contextual factors. Furthermore, it should be noted that there are important aspects of teaching that students are not competent to rate, for example, knowledge and expertise of the teacher, currency of the curriculum, or the preparation of the teacher, etc.
We should therefore view students not as evaluators of our teaching, but merely as information providers. Student ratings and comments are data to be interpreted, not a direct measure of overall teaching effectiveness. Such a recognition is important to put student feedback in proper perspective. We should also note that student feedback must be interpreted carefully by the teacher and the administrator, in relation to the specific objectives and contexts of the teaching. It is a bad practice to rank or compare teachers according to the raw SFQ scores received, without recognising the contextual differences across instructional settings, and the margin of error that exist in ratings.
Finally, the Student Feedback Questionnaire (SFQ) administered near the end of the semester is just one way of collecting feedback from students. There are alternative ways of soliciting feedback from students, which allow us to collect students’ views and take actions to enhance their learning during the course of our teaching, before it is too late.