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Surveys and controversies

Student surveys (of which student evaluation of teaching is one example) have been around for a long time and are often controversial. Arguments and research both support and challenge the validity of survey results. An understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of student surveys is necessary so you can mitigate for weaknesses and make best use of the evaluative data generated.

Summative evaluations of teaching effectiveness (for example, end of course student evaluations of teaching) are particularly controversial: during the 1980s and 90s there was a very heated debate about the validity, effectiveness and the value of students’ evaluation of teaching (SET) which continues today.

Over time, scholars agreed that while data provided in formal student feedback (such as the end of semester evaluations) is reliable, it does not directly measure the effectiveness of teaching, hence the validity is arguable.

The argument for surveys

UNSW is committed to student surveys for collecting evaluative data on the student experience as evidenced by the UNSW Student Surveys Project.

Merlin Crossley (Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education, UNSW) presents his argument about ‘Student surveys point to good teaching and ways to be better’.

The argument against surveys

“…standardised teaching evaluations encourage lecturers [educators] to focus on the narrow range of outcomes that are measurable, on style rather than substance, to minimise the discomfort of reducing contentious readings and watering down substance to produce ‘thin’ pedagogies” (Blackmore, 2009, p. 858).

Linking back to the discussion on both the definitions of concepts related to the student experience and the factors affecting student experience, it is common that instruments like surveys rarely measure the worth of experience. The questions asked are more likely to focus on the satisfaction on aspects of the experience or, the engagement with learning and teaching.

Talking point

Think about student surveys and their role in generating evaluation data. Do you believe that student survey data offers benefits or disadvantages for enhancing learning and teaching practice? What do you think students are able or capable of evaluating and why?

Want to know more?

If you would like to more about the controversy of surveys there are additional resources listed in the Want to know more.pdf for this step.


Blackmore, P. (2009). Academic pedagogies, quality logics and performance universities: evaluating teaching and what students want. Studies in Higher Education, 24(8), 857-872.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

UNSW Sydney