What student feedback may tell us

Every end of term or course good practice tells us that we should collect feedback from our learners on various aspects of the course, both those related to the administration as those directly related to the teaching and learning, such as the quality of teaching, assessment, and learning experience. Collecting feedback is seen as important to improve the quality of the educational services we provide and also give students the chance to voice their opinion and concerns.

There are different forms and approaches to the collection of feedback in education and although the practice is quite well ingrained in most institutions, it does not lack its critics. Some teachers and academics have raised concerns on the validity of feedback and posed questions on how much we can trust on students’ partial views and limited experience when designing and/or reviewing a course organization, syllabus and/or materials. Doubts have also be raised on the wisdom of making changes on programmes based on the feedback provided by one cohort of students when the next one may well give you conflicting views on the same aspects you have just changed. Fair enough.

However, I believe most skepticism comes from the fact that we are looking at feedback from a wrong theoretical perspective. Although there is no point in asking feedback if you are determined to ignore it and have no intention to change anything, it does not necessarily mean that you have to implement the changes suggested or should take them at face value.

Seeing feedback from a dialogical (Bakhtin, 1981) perspective may help get us avoid such trap and see feedback for what it can be: an opportunity for learners to add their own voice to the conversation about the educational process in which they are the most important stakeholders, and an opportunity for teachers to see things from a point of view that is denied to them no matter how well-intentioned they are and willing to see things from the learners’ standpoint. As Bakhtin reminds us, we need the viewpoint of others to see things that are inaccessible to us. Feedback tells me what my students and trainee teachers can see on the courses that I cannot.

I may use the feedback I receive to make the changes suggested or make changes that go in a completely different direction. I may even decide not to make any changes at all. In this last case scenario, feedback can make me realise that if my students cannot see the rhyme and reason why things are how they are when my theoretical knowledge and my professional experience tell me that that is the way they should be, then the problem may not be with the course itself but on how I am conveying the message about it. Feedback in this case is invaluable to tell me that I have to find a clearer and more efficient way make people understand the rationale behind the course design and the teaching practices I have adopted.

Whatever our positions may be regarding student feedback, it is very likely that the institutions where we work will demand that we collect it in order to ‘improve the quality of our teaching’. However, we should not be naive to think that one day this will lead us to the development of the perfect course syllabus and the perfect course materials. Students change, contexts change, and we as teachers and course developers also change. What feedback can help us do it to get as close as possible to matching students’ needs and expectations to institutional demands and to our own ideas about what our courses should be knowing that that there will always have to be a compromise between them and that all solutions are temporary and likely to change in time anyway.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on various positions regarding student feedback:

  • Brandt, C., 2008. Integrating feedback and reflection in teacher preparation. ELT Journal, 62(1), pp.37–46.
  • Essex, C. and Cagiltay, K., 2001. Evaluating an Online Course: Feedback from ‘Distressed’ Students. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 2(3), pp.233–39.
  • Kember, D., Leung, D.Y.P. and Kwan, K.P., 2002. Does the Use of Student Feedback Questionnaires Improve the Overall Quality of Teaching? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(5), pp.411–425.
  • Leckey, J. and Neill, N., 2001. Quantifying Quality: The importance of student feedback. Quality in Higher Education, 7(1), pp.19–32.
  • McKone, K.E., 1999. Analysis of Student Feedback Improves Instructor Effectiveness. Journal of Management Education, 23(4), pp.396–415.
  • Richardson, J.T.E., 2005. Instruments for obtaining student feedback: a review of the literature. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(4), pp.387–415.
  • Spooren, P., Brockx, B. and Mortelmans, D., 2013. On the Validity of Student Evaluation of Teaching The State of the Art. Review of Educational Research, 83(4), pp.598–642.


  • Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.