What contemporary work are student ratings actually doing in higher education?

Stephen Darwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


It is conventionally assumed that student ratings perform a significant function in driving improvement in pedagogical practices in higher education. As a result, this form of evaluation has gradually become institutionalised in recent decades as an essential proxy for understanding teaching and course quality in universities across the world. However, with the rise of market-based models in higher education and heightened expectations for accountability mechanisms, the role and functional purpose of ratings-based student evaluation have become increasingly confused. This rising ambiguity has created strong tensions between the seminal drive of student ratings as a tool of quality improvement, and the emerging demands for its use as a transparent accountability measure for the comparative assessment of academic performativity. So are student ratings now largely a tool of quality assurance or performance measurement, or do they remain a legitimate tool for pedagogical improvement? This paper reports on a study that responded to this critical question by considering the contemporary work of student ratings in a major Australian university. The outcomes of this research demonstrate that tension between improvement and accountability motives is causing considerable confusion and discord around the role and value of the student voice. It also reveals that academics are tending to discount the often critical insights of students on the implications of their pedagogical practices as a result of the elevating institutional role of student ratings as a proxy for teaching quality. In considering these outcomes, rising levels of academic dissonance around student ratings would suggest a necessity to consider broadened evaluative strategies that are able to more effectively capture the improvement potential offered by the student voice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-21
Number of pages9
JournalStudies in Educational Evaluation
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


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