Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Improving university teaching: Giving feedback to students

Christina Ballantyne
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University
Increased focus on the quality of teaching in Australian universities has meant an increase in the use of student surveys as a measure of teaching quality. While the literature on student surveys of teaching is vast, it mostly concentrates on aspects of the instruments used and staff perceptions of their usage, with very little evidence of student opinion.

A survey of students at Murdoch University indicated that while they felt that student surveys were extremely important, their main concern was happened to them and whether staff made any use of the information given. This study examines three units where the teaching staff gave feedback to the students, about the pedagogical decisions they have taken as a result of feedback received from previous groups of students. While providing this information to students may reinforce their views of the importance of the surveys, this study addresses the wider pedagogical question of what happens when teachers make their teaching 'explicit' in this way. The views of staff and students are sought to investigate what effect, if any, such attempts to make teaching practices explicit have on aspects such as the 'culture' of a class and teachers' and students' perceptions of appropriate pedagogical practice.


In recent years an upsurge in interest in teaching has occurred in universities in Australia and throughout the world. With this has come the introduction of policies within universities and government incentives designed to demonstrate a commitment to 'good teaching' (Ramsden, 1995; Richlin and Cox, 1991). These include the need to provide teaching portfolios, with recent student ratings of teaching and units, in applications for promotion and tenure and the instigation of teaching excellence awards. With these changes has come the need to produce evidence that the teaching students receive in our institutions is, in fact, 'good teaching' and this has ultimately meant an increase in the use of student surveys of teaching and units as a means of collecting this information.

In response to the 1994 Quality Audit which focussed on teaching, Murdoch University instigated a system of mandatorily surveying all units on a three year cycle. This effectively trebled the number of student surveys which were undertaken each year. By mid 1995 there was some concern, amongst both teaching staff and those involved in administering the surveys, that students may be being 'oversurveyed' and that there was a danger of respondent fatigue. Somewhat ironically, a survey was undertaken to collect some information on this issue. Students were asked to answer three questions -

Do you take these surveys seriously?
Are you happy with the frequency of the surveys?
Do you want the surveys to continue?
The response to these questions was overwhelmingly positive as shown in Table I. Students were also given the opportunity to make comments. Through these comments it appeared that the issue of most concern to students was that they had no information on whether any action was taken as a result of the surveys. They took them seriously but did not know whether staff did. As the surveys are undertaken in the final weeks of a unit, it is impossible for the existing class to be aware of, or to benefit from any changes made as a result. In fact there is an undertaking to students that, to ensure confidentiality, staff do not receive the results until after the student grades have been finalised. Students have no evidence to show them that staff make any use at all of the results of the surveys. From these comments came the original idea for this research project; given that the timing of student surveys does not allow for feedback on them to be given to the same group of students, what happens when staff give information to the next class on decisions they have made because of feedback from the previous group of students? How do students feel about getting this kind of information, about staff making their teaching explicit in this way? Will it make any difference to the 'culture' of the class or to how students feel about it?

Table I: Students' attitudes towards completing student surveys of teaching and units.
n = 995
Percentage response

Do you take these surveys seriously?9082
Are you happy with the frequency of the surveys?8216*2
Do you want the surveys to continue?8884

* Some students indicated that they would like the surveys to be more frequent.

At time of writing, this research is still in progress with the end of the data collection stage having been reached. Therefore, this paper seeks to give a background and an overview of the study only.

Why give feedback to students?

Two separate, though not unconnected areas of literature are relevant to this study, that on student evaluations of teaching, and that on good teaching. The literature which has been published on student evaluations of teaching is vast and many works give detailed reviews of what has been covered (Cashin, 1990; Centra, 1993; Ramsden, 1992). Most studies consider particular aspects - reliability and validity of questionnaires, biases which might occur, etc. It is not the focus of this study to examine these areas, other than to note that the consensus of opinion is that student ratings are generally valid, reliable and free of bias. Evaluation, however, is always seen as the last step in the process. Few studies look at what happens after the evaluation. In the tomes of literature that exist on evaluation of teaching and in particular on student ratings, there is a dearth of information on the next step in the process. What does exist is generally concerned with how feedback is given to staff (Brinko, 1993) how staff deal with it (Busuttil, 1995) or how useful it is (Marsh and Roche, 1994). Ramsden & Dodds (1989) suggest communicating with students on changes that have been made so that students complete the questionnaires seriously.
The ultimate purpose of any student evaluation of teaching system is the improvement of teaching, and implicit in that is the improvement of student learning. A prerequisite condition for teachers to make improvements to their teaching as a result of student feedback is that they consider student opinion worth listening too. Respect, care for students and listening to what they have to say on teaching and other issues is considered a fundamental aspect of good teaching (Brookfield, 1986; Centra, 1993; Greene, 1973; Taylor, 1995; Vella, 1994). If we are to construct a model of teaching in which the students' opinions are considered important then the traditional hierarchical 'teacher-expert, student-novice' one hardly seems to fit. In contrast it should be one where the distance between the teacher and student is cut so that the teaching becomes more of a dialogue between equals (Vella, 1994). It should be one where teacher and students co-operate and take on each others' roles (Brookfield, 1986) and where students feel, ultimately, that they are included in the teaching process. When students give feedback to a teacher they are sharing their perspectives of the unit and teaching they have just experienced. If the teacher acts on that information and communicates that action back to students, is he/she ultimately saying 'I am willing to let your views influence and change what I do in my teaching and in this way I am making you a participant in this process'? This study aims to investigate a situation in which students may feel more included in that process, specifically by examining what happens when teachers give feedback to students on the pedagogical decisions they have taken as a result of the feedback student have given to them. Some issues that might arise are whether the teacher's sharing of his/her own knowledge of teaching will make students feel more 'included', that there is more of a dialogue and less of a hierarchical structure in the class. Will there be any effect at all on the students? If so, will the effect be positive in terms of their learning or their experience of the class? Will it allow them to focus more on the process and less on the content of the unit? Will this 'meta-teaching' ie the awareness of how the teaching occurs, encourage students to think about their own 'metacognition' ie about how they learn?

Design of the study

Three units were chosen to be examined in this study. Criteria for selection were that they should have had a student survey carried out at the previous offering of the unit and that the coordinator was considering implementing changes based on this feedback. It was decided to exclude first year units so that students being interviewed had some experience of university teaching, on which to make comparisons, and some knowledge of the student survey system. To represent a variety of disciplines, the units selected came from Commerce, Computer Science and History. Changes that were made from the previous offerings included a change of text, a revised assessment structure and reduction in the amount of required reading. One lecturer had received criticism from previous students on the amount of content in the unit. Rather than reduce this, s/he decided to explain the reasons for this and to demonstrate priorities in the material.

Data were collected by a number of means; by interviewing the coordinator for each unit, by interviewing groups of students from each unit, by recording lectures to ascertain how the students were informed of the changes made and by a student survey at the end of the semester which included an open-ended question asking their opinion of the lecturer's giving feedback on the feedback from other students. In the group interviews students were asked what they thought of completing student surveys, what they thought the attitude of the staff was to them and what their reaction was to the feedback on what other students had said.

What the students said

As the data analysis has not yet been completed, results are not available, however there are some salient issues which are emerging. Students, generally, considered the surveys to be their 'voice' on the unit, in many cases, the one opportunity they have to give their opinions. They have very little idea of their lecturers attitude towards them. As one student said -
When [the lecturer] actually said this is what people have said, that's the first time I have ever heard, you know, any comeback on what was filled in...
Overall the students were very positive towards staff giving them feedback on what other students have said and what changes they have made as a result. The main issues which come out of the student interviews were those concerned with respect and concern for students. They felt staff were listening to what they were saying, they felt their opinions were being taken seriously and that by doing this the lecturer was opening up a discussion for further changes to be made. Overall, it gave students the feeling that this lecturer was approachable and that if they had problems with the unit, its structure or the style of teaching, then their concerns would be listened to and acted on.
And he's listening to what the students are saying, which shows that I mean, as we progress along hopefully if we go up to him and say look you know this is a bit dodgy is there anything I can do about it at least you feel like he might listen whereas some of them it feels like I'm talking to a brick wall.
Recent research in higher education has identified a heavy workload as a factor which encourages the use of surface learning strategies (Ramsden, 1992). Students in each of the three units commented on how their lecturers took their commitments in other units into account when setting deadlines for assigned work -
He also makes an effort to coordinate his unit with what's happening in other units with deadlines and that and we've got one particular assignment which is heavily involved in our other main course for our degree and the two lecturers have been working together really well for that. It's different because so many lecturers just don't take into account that you've got eight assignments due on the day that their assignment's due in and there's no way you are going to get it done.
The quotes from the students, above, show a positive reaction to the feedback their lecturers gave them. At the presentation of this paper a more detailed examination of the data will be available for discussion.


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Richlin, L. R. and M. D. Cox (1991). The scholarship of pedagogy: a message from the editors. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 2: 1-8.

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Vella, J. (1994). Learning to listen, learning to teach. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Please cite as: Ballantyne, C. (1997). Improving university teaching: Giving feedback to students. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p12-15. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/ballantyne.html

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