Hands up, I admit it, I was wrong. After I wrote some time ago that a sexy or eye-catching title is often not a good idea I am going to eat those words (or at least some of them). A few days ago I was sent on an analysis of web traffic to my blog and it turns out that the one with the highest number of reads was “Sexy Science and Friends with Benefits“. It’s nice to get concrete proof, of course, that I have readers. But that one? Not the one about the media and psychology, Brexit, or even my stream-of-consciousness rant on leadership? What is lingering in the back of my mind is the possibility that it wasn’t the words or even the title as much as the picture of Ashley and Pudsy that drew people in. Ah well, we are never too old to learn. Time again this week, I feel, to give the public what they want.
If you’ve read this far then it is time to refer you again to the take-home message of my previous blog on sexy titles which was that, while such a title might work as a hook to garner interest, if the subsequent text fails to deliver on its promise the reader can end up disappointed. In the interests of consistency and accuracy I’m going upfront with the disclaimer: the sex bit in this title is pretty much (not entirely) a shameless attempt to beat my previous high-score on web hits. The rest of this blog is about students’ learning and its relationship with satisfaction and lecturer likeability.
And if you’ve read this far (and thank you for that) I am going to reward you now with the current take-home message which is that, of course, there is no such relationship. Yet someone saw fit to explore whether students learn more from lecturers they like. And that got Twitter “likes” (what irony!) from a predictable array of swivel-eyed reactionaries who seem to take the view that you define what you are (a scientist) by repeatedly saying what you are not (an educator). That of course is about as rational as believing that you enhance your credentials as an Englishman by banging on about not being Scottish. For more on this see lecture 101 on 5-year-olds’ understanding of intergroup dynamics, or try to imagine a dinner-party conversation between Nigel Farage and Donald Trump.
I digress… Of course there is no consistent relationship between learning and how much students like their teachers. As if life was that simple? For a start we all know people are more likely to be fooled by an attractive person than an unattractive one, often against their better instincts. In such cases we must hope the scales drop from our eyes. There is also the “cool teacher” effect which was brilliantly captured in a series of sketches from Lee and Herring on Fist of Fun: last day of term, Richard Herring bores his class of disenchanted adolescents with the prospect of a game of hangman, whereas Stuart Lee locks his classroom door and kicks proceedings off with, “In the filing cabinet there’s a crate of lager for the boys and Babycham for the girls… bottom drawer, Suzanna”
It’s also plainly true that you cannot like someone very much but still benefit from your interaction with them. I’m not expecting to become bosom buddies with the bloke from CarGiant who recently sold me a second-hand Ford Galaxy, but he still gave me a car that works. And I’m satisfied with it.
Students aren’t stupid. They want to learn. Like the rest of us they also want and deserve to be respected. And, like the rest of us, they can pick up when they’re not respected and inevitably don’t find that very satisfying. There are still some in academia who take the view that students should be grateful just to be there and should shut up, get on with it, and not expect to enjoy themselves. But learning has never been and can never be a solipsistic endeavour. Students aren’t rating their learning anyway, they’re rating their teaching!
It’s a fair point to say that TEF metrics based purely on student satisfaction ratings are misguided. But it’s also fair to say that student satisfaction is only one element in the proposals. If you want to assess learning outcomes and compare them objectively across the HE system, you would need to transform the current system of external examiners and head towards some sort of homogenous curriculum. What follows from that is diminished institutional autonomy and I don’t think we want that, do we?
I’m feeling bad now about this blog’s title. Maybe I’m leaving you dissatisfied? In my defence, the initial idea was to talk about how lecturer likeability (which I was going to imply is akin to sexiness) was not linked to student satisfaction. I concede I haven’t yet made the link between sexiness and likeability. And of course there is no consistent link there either. That I was going to suggest there is reflects my own malfunctioning cognition. I’ll work on that, and for next week I’ll work on finding a title that might beat my high-score without exploiting lower common denominators. Please come back!