Tag Archives: student voice

A focus for the student voice: overthrowing passive teaching.

When I was an undergraduate, students were protesting and making themselves heard on a variety of issues. Most prominent were probably ‘ban the bomb’ and ‘save the whales’. Today, the focus appears to be more on excessive pay for vice-chancellors or the issue of tuition fees. The latter of these is not something that universities are currently in a position to fix. Having been ‘rolled over’ by successive governments over the past two decades, universities now seem to be powerless against the force of the TLA (Three Letter Acronym). Governments just need to whisper NSS, TEF or REF and universities appear eager to comply with whatever hair brained scheme the current minister has dreamt up.

Students seems to have learnt from their institutional role models and seem very quiet on  numerous issues. Perhaps this is a result of the dominance of the ’employability discourse’ over the ‘educational discourse’. Students see universities as gatekeepers of employment (rather than knowledge) and so are unwilling to bite the hand that might feed them?

And yet they do comment, if quietly, about the teaching at university. Rather than worrying about the quality of teaching, some commentators appear more worried about the hours of contact time that they get for the £9,000+ per year. But more poor teaching doesn’t help anyone. The poorest teaching often seems to centre around the lecture. Whilst there is space for the excellent lecture, or the ‘show lecture’, all too often programme teaching is dominated by the lecture. Some of these may be good, but some are clearly still seem by certain teachers to be a time when you read out the PowerPoint slides to quiet rows of comatose students – see my earlier posts about lectures and the use of PowerPoint. I suggest that anyone proposing the development of a new programme whose delivery is dominated by lectures, should have to write an open letter to explain the reliance on this medieval teaching approach in the 21st Century.

The evidence all points to active learning. As universities claim to be research-led centres of excellence, then why not look at the evidence about teaching and learning? Indeed the evidence of the superiority of active learning over passive learning is now so strong that Waldorp (2015: 273) has made the statement that “at this point it is unethical to teach in any other way” . So are we teaching unethically?

If students would focus on this issue, they would realise that some of the things that are of concern are out of control of the university. Issues under political control may currently be a lost cause. In a current age of stupidity, there are key words that sum this up and are guaranteed to be met with a frustrated eye-roll: e.g. ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ etc. But the teaching on campus does fall under the control of the university. It is the university that designs the curriculum, the university that delivers the curriculum and the university that assesses the students. So if we want to change these things, we don’t need to look beyond the university. Whilst things will change over time, the pace of change often feels as if is should be compared to the movement of the tectonic plates. Slow just doesn’t cover it. So how do we promote a quiet revolution in teaching?

In the sixties, the protest song was king. The likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger would be front and centre to find an anthem to unite a cause. So perhaps we need a protest song for active learning to overthrow passive learning?

I have a suggestion:

We’re not gonna take it” seems to sum it up! Now I appreciate that this genre might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it works for me. I realise that this might be seen to be from a ‘certain time’ in history when make-up and long hair were cool. Bringing it into the 21st Century, the same message has been repackaged and stripped down:

Now for those lecturers out there who think that teaching is just about content, compare these two videos – same content, different delivery. The first version was derided by senators’ wives in the US as leading the youth astray. The second version was used to promote a cancer charity. How times change – even if teaching approaches don’t. In the UK, the Rolling Stones were viewed with suspicion by parents in the 1960s, now Sir Mick Jagger is a Knight of the realm.

Anyway, in my dreams I imagine crowds of undergraduates outside the VCs office, singing “We’re not gonna take it” in unison as they demand an active learning focus in their course, and an end to boring, content-driven lectures.

Is it worth making a noise about teaching? If not, then sit quietly and stop moaning about boring lectures. If however it is important, and I think it is, perhaps student unions should be printing off lyric sheets so that the student voice can be raised in unison.


Waldorp, M. (2015) The science of teaching science. Nature, 523: 272 – 274.



Student evaluation of teaching: are we reaching for the wrong type of excellence?

Over twenty years ago Carr (1994: 49) wrote:

 ‘It is a shallow and false view of education and teaching which takes it to be a matter of the technical transmission of pre-packaged knowledge and skills in the context of efficient management’

However, it seems that this false view is still able obscure a more contemporary and research-informed views of teaching. The on-going drive for ‘teaching excellence’ still seems to focus on actions of the teacher that promote Carr’s ‘shallow view’. That is not to say that the student voice is not important, but we need to ensure that students are asked the right questions so that we do not promote student passivity as learners and do not subvert the student voice for purely political ends.

Fitzgerald et al (2002) wrote, ‘I value student perspectives in thinking about my practice. However, the institutional instrument designed to assess student perspectives focuses on a form of practice that ill fits my own values. Each semester students have been asked to rate the course and instructor on a nineteen-item rating scale. Many of the items are consistent with a teacher-directed pedagogy and linear information-processing model of learning (for example, Objectives are Clear, The Instructor Enhanced Knowledge of Subject, Organised Class Sessions Well, Demonstrates Knowledge of the Subject). When I first came to Uni, I was intimidated by these student evaluations because I believed them to be overly focused on clear objectives and a class structure predicated on teacher control of the classroom. These survey items do not adequately capture what I hope to accomplish in the classroom, and I correctly anticipated receiving mixed review on this measure. Students may desire and need clearly presented knowledge, attained in a highly structured teacher-directed context, but educational opportunities are impoverished if this is the only form of pedagogy provided. A rather monovocal assessment tool inscribes a particular vision of education, and fails to provide useful feedback to educators who teach in alternative ways. This narrow representation of education limits our vision of what ‘good’ education might be, and privileges a particular mode of learning.’

So are we still promoting ‘monovocal assessment tools’ ? If so why? Many commentators ask why those who purportedly revere the power of critical thinking go on to employ simplistic, quantitative tools to ‘measure’ teaching quality. Clearly, in the UK, the Government’s agenda to assess teaching is pushing things along with a single purpose in mind. Katzner (2012) has asserted that in their quest to describe, analyze, understand, know, and make decisions, western societies have accepted the myth of synonymy between objective science and measurement. He comments that what we cannot measure gets demoted as ‘less important’. If it has been measured, it must be ‘scientific’ and ‘rigorous’ – especially if we can apply statistical analysis that the common man/woman will not understand.

So we go from monovocal to monocular (possibly also myopic). A system in which ‘ideas diversity’ and ‘methodological variation’ (typically seen as indicators of health for an academic community) are apparently no longer valued. We then end up with a ‘hard core’ set of unquestioned statements and assumptions that are not supported by evidence. The result is that we have an academic community that will survive by ‘maintaining their autonomy and academic freedom through demonstrating symbolic compliance or pragmatic behaviour’ (Teelken, 2012: 287). This could result in innovative teaching being driven underground, like a resistance movement – a situation that is likely to promote pedagogic frailty (Kinchin, et al, 2016). An outcome that is the opposite of that intended. Fitzgerald et al (2002) talked about values as the underpinning concept that drives things forwards with any meaning. I wonder if the explication of values (particularly shared values, rather than any spurious mission statement placed on a web site) by universities will form part of the TEF, which will inform teaching evaluations in the UK over the coming years. Or is teaching supposed to be ‘values-free’ in the modern era? I didn’t get that memo.



Carr, D. (1994) Educational enquiry and professional knowledge: Towards a Copernican revolution. Educational Studies, 20(1): 33 – 54.


Fitzgerald, L.M., Farstad, J.E. & Deemer, D. (2002) What gets ‘mythed’ in the student evaluations of their teacher education professors? In: Loughran, J. and Russell, T. (Eds.) Improving teacher education practices through self-study. London, Routledge/Falmer (pp. 203-214).


Katzner, D. W. (2012). Unmeasured information and the methodology of social scientific inquiry. Springer Science & Business Media.


Kinchin, I.M., Alpay, E., Curtis, K., Franklin, J., Rivers, C. and Winstone, N.E. (2016) Charting the elements of pedagogic frailty. Educational Research, 58(1): 1 – 23.


Teelken, C. (2012) Compliance or pragmatism: how do academics deal with managerialism in higher education? A comparative study in three countries. Studies in Higher Education, 37(3): 271 – 290.