Shred of Anonymity

Image coutesy of Andy Field's 'Catistics' Facebook page.

Image courtesy of Andy Field’s ‘Catistics’ Facebook page.

I have been really enjoying my teaching this term. That might be just as well, since I’ve averaged 15 hours of contact time with students each week, plus preparation. I’ve worked hard at it. And I’ve liked it. I’ve had the opportunity to teach very much within my field, very much outside of my field, (but on an interesting philosophical debate), and in the basics of my field – along with the help of ninja cats, zombies, the odd pub quiz, and a lovely complement of teaching staff.

But none of that is any use if the students haven’t gotten anything out of it.  So, through this term, I’ve been collecting feedback from the students “online” through paper and pen short form questionnaires to try to improve my teaching for them. And the results have been useful. When third year students said they couldn’t hear me at the back of the room, (much as I wish they had mentioned this in the lecture) I hired a portable PA system to help make sure they could hear me in the following lectures. Where timetabling was an issue with an extra session for postgraduates, I re-arranged things to suit the students.

And then the university-level module feedback comes in. And what I notice then is a sliding scale. It goes between what students say face-to-face, “it’s okay”, “it’s interesting”, “we can do that”, to what they’ll say on paper, “we need longer in discussion-time”, “make slides available before the seminar”, to what they say on these forms, “Sian is annoying, short-tempered, patronizing, and far too quiet”. I quote.

photo (1)The sliding scale goes between the positive “100% worth getting out of bed for”, to the downright negative, “I didn’t understand any of her examples”, from the impersonal, to the personal. Of course, psychology can offer many explanations as to why this is the case. The social identity de-individuation [SIDE] effect (e.g., Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 2011) posits that it is not that anonymity leads to a loss of control and negative comments (the assumption being that more negative opinions wouldn’t be expressed with control) but that anonymity gives flight to people being more able to express their collective identities.

In this case then, does anonymity give students more freedom to express a “student voice”? Fortunately, among the negative, personal comments were some startlingly positive ones about staff enthusiasm and support.  I now question whether the earlier, more positive, and more constructive, comments that I have from students on pen and paper forms, which were largely hand-written, are equally valid.

And, from an (admittedly brief) search of the literature, there seems to be very little research on this. I found a paper by Aldridge and Rowley (1998) entitled “customer satisfaction in higher education”* suggesting that both paper and pen and electronic forms are needed to optimise response rate, and another by Hatfield and Coyle (2013) suggesting that older students were more likely to complete evaluations. The advice given by my university on using its module evaluation form concerns how to  up response rates – but not how to increase the validity of those responses. Similarly, a chapter on student evaluation practices in Fry, Ketteridge and Marshall (2009)  (our teaching course book) does not cover this. So, what about the content of student feedback? I found one paper by Kidd and Latif (2004) suggesting that course grade expectations were positively correlated with course ratings, thus rendering the validity of course feedback dubious….but –


One of the courses I teach on, and got feedback from.

There are more questions to be asked, that I couldn’t find answers for. What are the effects on content positivity, for example, (as some departments do), of offering £10 in Amazon vouchers for completion of the National Student Survey? Of lecturers being present versus absent when feedback is completed? Of asking for feedback after teaching has finished, or during the last lecture? Of the “feedback and mince pies” revision session at Christmas? Of hearing students speak in focus groups or via questionnaires?

These seem to be open questions. The hypotheses could be garnered from the SIDE model, and from elsewhere in social psychology. I would argue that until that research is done, factors affecting the content  of the student voice (and knock-on effects on the validity of that voice vis-a-vis students’ true opinions) – and which comments I should act upon – will remain elusive.

*The notion of consumer satisfaction in Higher Education is another issue again – I don’t have the scope for it in this post. But watch this space. ….


One thought on “Shred of Anonymity

  1. Hi Sian
    This is a really interesting post, thank you. Don’t focus on the negative or unhelpful comments as this is not a reflection of what everyone thinks. Students need to sound off sometimes and this might just be that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time for this particular student. You can’t please all of the people all of the time! The fact that you have been so proactive in getting feedback throughout the term shows your commitment to teaching and to your own personal development and that should be applauded. I very much look forward to reading your thoughts on consumer satisfaction too!

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