The end of semester survey of students has become ubiquitous in tertiary education. The literature on its use goes back the 70s. the mystical teachings of jesus there is some research into the use of surveys for teaching from the early 20th century. With 40 plus years of serious research effort it would be safe to assume that the system used to measure teaching quality and help improve it is well established and well developed. Therefore, if an academic knows how to use and respond to these surveys, then that academic can’t help but become a better teacher. The only gap then would be how to use the current survey system properly.
Unfortunately, the current survey system is incredibly far from being remotely close to a good quality control system.
The majority of research into the development of surveys for the measurement of teaching quality has been conducted within the context of assuming that statistical properties such as repeatability and consistency are the end goal. As a result the actual requirements of a good quality control system have been ignored.
It also seems that quality control and improvement is not actually the focus of the current system. The results of the surveys are used for numerous purposes:
- To help students choose subjects
- To influence the promotion of academics
- To provide an overview to the administration of how different study areas are performing
- To compare faculties and teaching institutions
I am not arguing that any of these are bad to do. However, when you try to develop one survey to do all of these things, you are unlikely to do all (if any) of them well. It will certainly make quality control (and improvement) more difficult to achieve.
Why is it Like This?
As I mentioned above, the research into teaching quality really took off in the 70s. This was before the quality revolution of the late 70s and early 80s where new quality principles developed in Japan flowed to the rest of the world. It was first in manufacturing and then it spread to services and other business areas. However, it seems that because research into teaching quality started before the quality revolution, the area developed without input from other areas that were developing quality systems. The end effect was that teaching quality took a very different path and because it was a much smaller community, did not benefit from the larger pool of ideas and research findings. The end effect is that when it comes to quality, teaching has been left decades behind the rest of the world.
What Needs to Change?
The biggest flaw with quality control in teaching is the focus on time. Many assume that having a single survey at the end of the semester, when the students have had a chance to see the whole subject, is the best time to ask them their thoughts. However, establish quality control theory says that a quality outcome can only be achieved by tracking the state of the respective system all the time. If you wait until the end, then you have simply produced a bad outcome (probably) and let it go out into the world – it’s too late. Instead, you must ensure that each step taken to bring about the desired outcome is executed correctly to ensure that the entire process is working correctly. Then the desired outcome (in this case a well-educated student) can be expected.
The next biggest flaw is the idea that all data collected must be tabulated and recorded for distribution to all members of the organisation. Much modern quality control is within the system being controlled and the operator(s) of that system. This was not easily achieved. Many factory mangers dislike the idea of a problem eventuating, that problem being identified by the machine operator, then being fixed by the operator, and the factory manager never knowing. The system works well, but many fear ignorance. This seems to have carried over to academia. Academics are not given the chance to see that an issue is forming and a chance to correct it. Instead, the results of surveys are often withheld until assessment is completed with not chance to correct the issues.