Thursday, 17 June 2010

The No-Win Situation

As an academic committed to evaluation and feedback of one's teaching (aren't we all?) we frequently end up in no-win situations. This is when we try out a new innovative approach to teaching (or even an old, tried-and-tested one), solicit feedback from the students, and end up being stumped. Unlike the theoretical ideal, student feedback rarely ends up in a bell-shaped curve, where we have a few very positive, a few very negative, and a whole lot of indifferent plus/minus positive or negative bunch in the middle. Depending on whether the mean of that curve is more on the positive side or the negative one, we can judge the teaching innovation as having been a success or failure.

However, it more commonly seems (purely impressionistic non-scientific anecdotal impression) to end up with the 'Valley of Death', where roughly half the students are in favour of it, and the other half against. One such case was in last year's FREDA module, where I got the students to work in groups, and to write a formative essay as a group. Some students felt this was "not the way we work in English", as if group work was only suitable for those pesky science types, whereas others were initially skeptical, but realised that it was great because you'd get to see how others approach the same task and topic from a completely different direction.

So, what to do? The route of least resistance would be to drop the change, as then the negative comments have been taken into account, and the positives don't matter, as long as they don't state they wouldn't want to go back to the situation before the change. This, however, is deeply unsatisfactory, and my non-pc view is that we as qualified educators know better and that our views, based on sound pedagogy, are actually more worthy than those of the students. This attitude is of course not popular in a culture of constant evaluation and league tables, but then, it's a no-win situation anyway. Maybe I should just retrain as a merchant banker.


  1. The reason for negative feedback lies in the comparison with past experience and not results. If you carry on doing it, students will gradually accept it as a given. But do you have evidence of learning being more successful with the new method?

  2. One problem is that past experience is not for me to change. Next year's student intake will still think of it as unusual, even if I have used it for several years in my own modules.

    As for success: it is impossible to measure, I believe. You cannot compare across cohorts, as the students are not comparable, and a large part of this is not quantifiable. How do you measure 'feeling of being in a group rather than alone' or 'being used to working with other people'? Some of these are those fabled transferable skills which will have little impact on the module grade or other ways of assessing learning success. Though I'd be delighted to learn of ways of evaluating the success more thoroughly than just through my own intuition!

  3. hm, maybe what you are trying to achieve here is "group work skills" and the only way to quantify is with some focus groups-do your students feel that albeit a "different/difficult/weird" experience they have actually enhanced their ability to work within a group? At the end of the day, students should be enjoying the course, but of course we can't always make them happy. A tough one...