What are Student Satisfaction Surveys Really Telling Us?

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[originally posted Fall 2014]

In the process of writing a paper, I came across the observation by Kathy Messildine and her colleagues that "student satisfaction may not be a good indicator of learning (1)." This was based on the fact that although students had performed better in a flipped class, they were less satisfied by the experience than students who were taking the same class using the traditional lecture approach (1). Reading more of the literature reinforced this observation. Even though students perform less well and often complain of being bored in course evaluations, many surveys indicate they prefer lectures. Students are familiar with this course structure. They know what to expect. They know how their teachers will assess their performance, and, perhaps, they feel the burden of learning is more on the teacher "performing" well than on themselves.


As professors though, we know this isn't true for all, or even many, students. The whole reason I tried flipping portions of my first class was due to a surprisingly successful, accidental foray into creating video tutorials for a general education class. The many students who were struggling to understand how to do factor-label calculations told me how much they appreciated my decidedly simple videos. I'm sure that we have all had those moments where what we experience counters what we read or know or expect.


In his paper examining student reactions in a flipped statistics class, Jeremy Strayer provides some insight into what might be happening (2).  As I read through this paper, it seemed to me that the students were responding to two particular aspects of his class. First, the inverted nature of the class was new to them, and thus none of them knew how to succeed in this type of class. That's enough to give anyone anxiety when they've spent a good portion of their lives striving to figure out how to succeed in a very different environment. Fortunately, students adapt reasonably quickly if given the chance (3). Second, his course didn't have a predictable day-to-day structure, and he acknowledges that students couldn't figure out "how to do class."


Maybe what the students were reacting to was the lack of predictability in the course. We are, however much we might like to argue, creatures of habit. There is something comforting about waking up in the morning and pretty much knowing what to expect out of the day and what will be expected of you. I suspect our students are no different. Strayer observes that his students were feeling "lost", "on edge", and uncertain about how to manage class time.

How, then, can we ease the discomfort of a new classroom environment?


I think a good start is by providing some measure of predictability and structure. My experience has been that if students know what to expect, what is expected from them, and, most of all, why you are choosing to do something different then even those who don't particularly care for the change will give it a try. When I flipped my general chemistry classes, I provided my students with a detailed, day-by-day syllabus that let them know what videos they were expected to have watched and what the class activities (in general) would be. Overall, the students arrived in class prepared and quickly got to work in their groups.


Maybe the decrease in student satisfaction that has been observed is telling us something about the structure of the class itself, about how clearly we've articulated our expectations and our reasons for doing something different. Over time, I believe students will appreciate the value of a flipped classroom; however, until they gain more experience in that environment, what other actions can we take that will help students adapt to and thrive in a flipped class?


1 Missildine, Kathy, Rebecca Fountain, Lynn summers, and Kevin Gosselin. 2013. Flipping the Classroom to Improve Student Performance and Satisfaction. Journal of Nursing Education. 52: 597-599.

2 Strayer, Jeremy F.  2012. How Learning in an Inverted Classroom Influences Cooperation, Innovation and Task Orientation. Learning Environment Research. 15: 171-193.

3 Mason, Gregory S., Teodora R. Shuman, and Kathleen E. Cook. 2013. Comparing the Effectiveness of an Inverted Classroom to a Traditional Classroom in an Upper-Division Engineering Course. IEEE Transactions on Education. 56: 430-435. In this paper, the authors observe that by the fourth week, the students had adapted their study habits to the new demands of the course.

About the Author
I usually teach General Chemistry I and II and some combination of our three upper level Biochemistry courses with the occasional general education course tossed in just to mix things up. I have also taught courses in forensic chemistry and NMR spectroscopy. I earned my bachelor's degree in chemistry from Mississippi State University and my doctorate in Biomedical Research from Washington University in St. Louis. I'm always looking for ways to engage my students in and outside of class and enjoy hearing about what other faculty are doing. I have been flipping portions of my General Chemistry classes for a year and am in the process of writing a paper analyzing student success rates and student video viewing habits in these classes. My current research is focused on the microbial communities in several local wetlands, how they change seasonally and how these changes may influence the removal of nitrate from run-off. I enjoy wading through the muck to see what is there, although I could do without the mosquitoes. When I'm not out bicycling, I'm often spinning, dying, or weaving yarn with the help of my cat.