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When good is bad and bad is good: the doublethink of learner feedback

November 17, 2013

Next week I’ll be holding the first course representatives’ meetings of the academic year. Each of our ESOL classes has two course representatives, and at the end of each 12-week cycle they meet with me to raise any issues they have about their learning programme. Before meeting me, they hold a discussion with their class to decide on what they will raise at the meeting. They have also received training in how to be an effective course representative. Minutes of these meetings are taken, and action points identified. The next meeting will include discussion of what action has been taken as a result of the issues raised.

There were times in the past when these meetings were very short; the students tended to say they liked everything and were more or less happy with what was being provided, and negative comments would be limited to non-academic areas, like the cleanliness of the toilets or the range of choices available in the canteen. I would leave these meetings feeling happy – if they’ve got nothing to complain about then we must be doing a good job – and I’d willingly pass copies of the minutes to my line managers and receive emails of approval in return.

But it wasn’t like that last year. Students questioned the validity of assessments, expressed discomfort with some approaches to teaching, and asked for more feedback on classroom tasks. Does this mean the quality of our programmes went down last year? I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that this is an indicator that the quality of our programmes may actually have gone up.

The thing is, we hadn’t made any changes to the programme in terms of assessment, teaching approaches or feedback. But the students perceived the course differently last year. So why was there such a change in student feedback? I could go on the defensive and say that the students last year must have been particularly moany and hard to please. Or, we could say that last year’s students had a more developed sense of critical awareness. In order to identify faults in the learning programme, students need to engage critically with it. This requires them to reflect on the actions of their teachers/peers and the impact of these actions on their progress as learners. Last year was the first time our course reps had focused training, which included a lot of reflection on their own learning experience. They had a clear understanding of what it means to represent a group, and a strong sense of responsibility to do this effectively.

Also, a component in the course that we called “Guidance and Study Skills” included a lot of discussion and evaluation of learning preferences, and encouraged students to employ different learning strategies and study techniques. As a result of this, the students developed a more heightened awareness of what approaches to teaching and learning work best for them.

Of course it’s possible that last year’s students were very critically aware already. But the point is that their criticisms of the course were not so much a result of problems in the quality of provision, but a result of the students being able to effectively employ critical reflection – something that was encouraged throughout their lessons.

The instinctive way to approach student feedback is to assume that if comments are mostly positive, everything must be OK, and that negative comments flag up problems. Brookfield calls this the “Perfect 10” syndrome – the idea that teachers should aspire to getting only positive comments in feedback.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Positive feedback often comes when students are unaware of their own (lack of) progress, or if they are happy to sit passively through teacher-centred lessons that don’t require them to do any work, or who prefer lessons that are entertaining rather than challenging. Positive feedback does not necessarily indicate that any learning is taking place. Brookfield describes the dangers of the “Perfect 10” assumption in this way:

“Teachers are almost bound to be liked if they never challenge students’ automatic ways of thinking and behaving, or if they allow them to work only within their preferred learning styles. Since letting people stick with what comes easily to them is a form of cognitive imprisonment, one could almost say that anyone who consistently scores a perfect ten is just as likely to be doing something wrong as something right.” (Brookfield 1995: 17-18).

On the other hand, if students give negative feedback, at least you can be sure of the following:

-They are able to question the way they are learning.

-They understand that their opinion counts.

-Something is happening to push them out of their comfort zone.

-They are aware that alternatives exist to the model of teaching they are currently receiving.

-They have some kind of idea of what alternatives they would prefer.

Of course, the above things could take place in a class where the teaching is terrible. But they are equally likely to happen (in fact they are likely to be actively encouraged) in an environment that empowers students, promotes critical thinking and encourages learner autonomy.

This all suggests that the standard feedback form, where students tick a box to indicate how happy they are about a range of issues, is fundamentally flawed. Brookfield certainly thinks so:

“…it serves individuals with a reductionist cast of mind who believe that the dynamics and contradictions of teaching can be reduced to a linear, quantifiable rating system…Judging teaching by how many people say they like what you do supports a divisive professional ethic that rewards those who are the most popular.” (Brookfield 1995: 18).

Perhaps this is why I like the course representatives’ meetings as a way of gauging students’ perceptions of the course. The forum of a meeting means they have a chance to clarify and justify their opinions, but it also means that I have some kind of right to reply. Some things (e.g. national assessments) are the way they are and we just have to work within those constructs.  Also, we are able to negotiate appropriate action together, and then review the effectiveness of this action in subsequent meetings.

The important thing to remember about student feedback, then, is that it doesn’t really mean anything until the reasons and justifications for comments have been investigated. In fact, negative comments may even be a direct result of good quality learning and teaching. Let’s see if my managers agree when I send them the minutes after next week’s meetings.


Brookfield, S.D. 1995: Becoming a critically reflective teacher, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

  1. Terry McGeary permalink

    Like this quote Steve:”Since letting people stick with what comes easily to them is a form of cognitive imprisonment, one could almost say that anyone who consistently scores a perfect ten is just as likely to be doing something wrong as something right.” (Brookfield 1995: 17-18).

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