students walking around campus

In this post, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Dr Erik Blair considers the nature and value of student feedback, and the importance of considering how it reflects a student’s experience.

Students are no longer the passive recipients of knowledge, they are the co-creators of their own learning experience. As educators we look to develop student autonomy and want students to be engaged with their own learning. Students are empowered (and powerful), yet their voice is not always heard. Or rather, their voice is heard but not always listened too. One of the ways we can hear that voice is through feedback from students. This is done formally and informally through a range of means such as staff-student consultative committees; student evaluation questionnaires; the National Student Survey; consultations with academic advisors; discussion boards on virtual learning environments; emails, and ad hoc chats in the corridor or coffee shop.

Feedback from students is not an exact science – it is drawn from the specific experiences of individual students. Such data can be messy to gather and difficult to interpret but that does not mean it should not be valued. The ‘easy’ response to feedback from students is to find the errors in in it. The difficult response to feedback from students is to realise that what they are giving voice to is of genuine concern to them and that this matters. The student voice tends to be qualitative in nature, and one of the problems in valuing student feedback is the false dualism of the quantitative and the qualitative. Quantitative feedback has the appearance of objectivity and often seems to provide suitable fuel for generalisation. Qualitative data appears to be more subjective and contextually specific. This has led to the reification of objectivity over experience.

Objectivity in academia tends to have a higher status than subjectivity, but this is not universally true and it certainly need not be true of student feedback. John Locke proposed that objects have primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities of an object are the properties that can be objectively measured: size, shape, number etc. Secondary qualities relate to the way that we experience the world and involve our subjective interpretation of an object: colour, taste, sound etc. Here we have the separation of objectivity and experience. We can see this in the art world where a painting is not assessed by its size but by something less tangible.

Visitors to the Louvre typically spend three hours in the museum and follow a well-worn path, taking in the Venus de Milo, the Mona Lisa and The Wounded Cuirassier (Yoshimura et al, 2014). As they huddle together at the Mona Lisa, with its estimated value of over £1 Billion, visitors tends to be taken by how small it is (77cm x 53cm). If the Mona Lisa were valued only by its primary qualities then we could easily cost the price of some oil paints, a wooden panel and a nice oak frame. We could even factor in the hourly rate of the artist, transportation costs, marketing costs and any mark-up added by intermediaries. You don’t need a calculator to see that this is unlikely to add up to £1 Billion; therefore, we must assume that the value of the Mona Lisa is based on secondary qualities. There is the argument that the worth of any object is simply what someone is willing to pay for it but this itself is driven by subjective factors.

Higher Education has certain primary qualities. Degrees are divided into years; years are made up of various units; lectures last a certain time, as do tutorials, seminars and classes; exams are timed; essays have word counts, and the final output is a degree classification. But students are not automatons who ‘clockworkily’ move through the system. Students do not just attend a lecture, they experience it. Students do not just sit an exam, they experience it. And students do not just go to university- it is a holistic experience. The secondary qualities of Higher Education are actually central facets. Therefore, when students feedback subjective insights, they should be actively listened to.

The value in feedback from students lies in considering the centrality of experience. Being a student is a primary experience infused with secondary qualities. An autonomous student must be supported in developing and embracing their own experiences in the teaching and learning environment. One of the ways of supporting such autonomy is valuing the student voice. Through the use of tools such as staff-student consultative committees; student evaluation questionnaires, and the National Student Survey we can begin to hear that voice. Such measures tend to be rather blunt tools but they can be made blunter still if we simply reduce them to data sets for institutional reports.

In developing an understanding of primary and secondary qualities, we can see that conceptualising the ‘worth’ of the student voice is not an either/or experience. Instead we can begin to realise the value in the relationship between the subjective and the objective, so that while the student voice may be subjective we can still collect it and analyse it in rigorous ways. In other words, not only is it an absolutely valid and important way of getting student feedback but we can also be scholarly in the way we examine and utilise this data. Taking feedback seriously may help us generate a virtuous cycle that recognises the subjectivity of experience whilst simultaneously understanding that experience is central to the human condition. Simply quantifying the Higher Education experience lessens its worth but listening to the student voice will help us to understand the real worth of Higher Education.

Yoshimura, Y., Sobolevsky, S., Ratti, C., Girardin, F., Carrascal, J.P., Blat, J. and Sinatra, R., (2014) An analysis of visitors’ behavior in the Louvre Museum: A study using Bluetooth data. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 41(6), pp.1113-1131.


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