Lip service surveys

The world is full of surveys: surveys for free meals at TGI Friday’s, surveys for news polls, and at school, surveys for curricular reform:

“In order to improve this course for next year, we would appreciate it very much if you would take a few minutes and fill out this evaluation form.”

And the idea behind a survey is a good (nay, excellent) one: to gather feedback and ostensibly make changes and corrections based on it. The issue is in survey construction and follow-through. The usual survey has a variety of broadly worded statements with answer choices 1-5, 1 being “strongly agree” and 5 being “strongly disagree.” There will usually be a text-box for general comments at the end. You take this survey and your answers disappear into the depths of the internet never to be heard from again.

But from the beginning, the idea that you can sum up whether something works effectively or not based on a numerical average is a kludge. Furthermore, even if an average of 4 does approximate satisfaction, that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways to do things. It’s an understandable shorthand, but anyone hoping that it’s sufficient to understand reception  is fooling themselves. If people’s responses show that weekly quizzes are on the whole useful, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer or think it better if they were biweekly, on Mondays, on Fridays, longer, shorter, or anything else. If people say dividing the year into 4 chunks is no good, it doesn’t mean 7 would be better. A number is all well and good, but at the end of the day, how someone feels isn’t the crux: it’s why they feel the way they do.

In order for a survey to be effective, it has to take time. Each question needs to have its own comment box. Then, someone needs to go through those comment boxes and compile all of the suggestions and problems. Take the suggestions and complaints, then formulate new courses of action. Then, before implementing them, offer them anew in a survey:  What do you think about these choices? Do they sound good? How good? Better then before? If not, why not? If that takes too much time to do, have students volunteer to do the grunt work. They’ll put in on their CVs, the administrators can continue doing whatever it is that administrators do, and everyone is happy. This is also how you make changes quickly. It doesn’t need to take years.

People tend to make incremental changes to the status quo. It’s hard to make drastic changes, especially if those changes reverse your hard work or go against your own inclinations; it’s even harder to come up with these changes yourself when necessary. This difficulty then breeds the stagnation that allows bad systems to continue even when their obsolescence is practically taken for granted. And yet, this is how you get curricular form with a stethoscope on the heartbeat of a student body.

Sometimes things don’t work—but if a goal is truly to teach a subject effectively, then no one can tell you better what does and does not work than students. This is how you don’t spin your wheels around a problem, making arbitrary changes. You need to ask for feedback, but more importantly, you need to be willing to listen to it.