Navigating the storm - the impact of student voice on UK academics

By Student Voice

In the landscape of UK higher education, the importance of student evaluations of teaching (SET) cannot be overstated. These evaluations serve as a crucial mechanism for quality assurance and provide valuable feedback for academic staff development. However, the rise of anonymous, non-constructive commentary within these evaluations presents a challenge that necessitates careful navigation. Drawing inspiration from recent research by Hutchinson et al. (2024) in Australia, this blog post explores the implications of such feedback for UK academics, highlighting the importance of student voice and the potential applications of text analysis to mitigate negative impacts.

The Double-Edged Sword of Student Evaluations

Student evaluations are integral to the academic feedback loop, offering insights into the effectiveness of teaching methodologies and course content. Constructive feedback from these evaluations is invaluable for continuous improvement. Yet, the anonymity afforded to students can sometimes lead to non-constructive, even derogatory comments, turning this tool into a double-edged sword. The question then arises: how can we harness the positive power of the student voice while protecting academic staff from potential harm?

The Impact of Non-Constructive Feedback

Research from Australia has shed light on the significant impact that non-constructive student commentary can have on academics' mental health and professional confidence. Younger and tenured academics appear to be particularly vulnerable, with their well-being and career progression at stake. In the UK, where the student voice is increasingly championed, these findings prompt a reevaluation of how feedback is collected and used. The need to balance the student voice with staff welfare has never been more critical.

Harnessing Text Analysis for Positive Change

One promising solution lies in the application of text analysis techniques. By systematically analysing the language used in student evaluations, universities can identify and filter out abusive or non-constructive comments before they reach the academic staff. This approach not only protects staff well-being but also ensures that the feedback process remains a constructive exercise focused on teaching and learning improvement.

The Way Forward

The challenges presented by anonymous non-constructive feedback call for a nuanced approach to student evaluations. As UK higher education institutions continue to navigate these waters, several steps can be taken to foster a healthier feedback culture:

  1. Review and Reform: There is a need for a comprehensive review of current SET systems, with a focus on minimising the potential for harm. This includes reconsidering the anonymity aspect of evaluations and exploring alternative methods of capturing the student voice.

  2. Text Analysis Implementation: Investing in text analysis technologies to pre-screen feedback can help identify and mitigate the impact of non-constructive comments, ensuring that the focus remains on constructive, actionable feedback.

  3. Support Systems for Staff: Developing robust support systems for academic staff to address the emotional and professional challenges posed by negative feedback is essential. This includes offering training on how to interpret and use feedback constructively, as well as providing access to counselling and support services.

  4. Promoting Constructive Student Engagement: Educating students on the importance of constructive feedback and the impact their words can have on academic staff is crucial. Encouraging a culture of respect and constructive criticism can enhance the quality of the feedback provided.


The issue of non-constructive student commentary in evaluations is not unique to Australia; it resonates across the UK and beyond. By recognising the importance of the student voice while safeguarding academic staff from its potential negative impacts, we can ensure that student evaluations continue to serve as a cornerstone of quality improvement in higher education. Through thoughtful reform and the strategic use of technology, we can navigate the storm, fostering an environment where constructive feedback leads the way to excellence in teaching and learning.


Q: How do different cultural contexts within the UK higher education system influence the nature and impact of non-constructive student commentary in evaluations, and how might text analysis techniques be adapted to address these variations effectively?

A: The UK's diverse higher education landscape means that student populations and, consequently, student voice manifest differently across institutions. Cultural backgrounds can significantly influence how students give feedback and the type of language they use. Text analysis can play a crucial role in this context by being tailored to recognize and understand the nuances of various cultural expressions. By incorporating algorithms that are sensitive to cultural differences, text analysis can help ensure that feedback is interpreted accurately. This approach allows for a more inclusive evaluation process, where the student voice from diverse backgrounds is understood in its proper context, contributing positively to the academic environment.

Q: What are the ethical considerations and potential limitations of using text analysis to filter student feedback, particularly concerning the balance between censoring harmful content and preserving the authenticity of student voice?

A: The use of text analysis to filter student feedback raises important ethical considerations. On one hand, there's a need to protect academic staff from abusive and non-constructive comments that can harm their mental health and professional confidence. On the other hand, it's vital to maintain the integrity of the student voice, ensuring it remains authentic and uncensored. The challenge lies in designing text analysis systems that can differentiate effectively between harmful content and critical feedback that, while negative, is constructive and valuable. This requires careful calibration of text analysis algorithms to avoid over-censorship while still protecting staff. Moreover, transparency about how feedback is processed and used is essential to maintain trust in the evaluation process.

Q: Beyond identifying and filtering non-constructive comments, how can text analysis be employed to further enhance the constructive use of student feedback, such as identifying patterns or trends that could inform teaching practices and curriculum development?

A: Text analysis can serve as a powerful tool not only for filtering non-constructive comments but also for mining student feedback for insights that can drive improvements in teaching and curriculum development. By analyzing the content of student evaluations, text analysis can identify recurring themes, patterns, or trends in feedback across different courses or departments. This information can highlight areas of strength and identify opportunities for improvement, guiding strategic decisions in curriculum development and teaching methodologies. Furthermore, by tracking changes in student feedback over time, text analysis can help institutions measure the impact of changes made, providing a feedback loop that continually enhances the quality of education. In essence, text analysis turns the student voice into a strategic asset for academic excellence.


[Source] Marie Hutchinson, Rosanne Coutts, Debbie Massey, Dima Nasrawi, Jann Fielden, Megan Lee & Richard Lakeman (2024) Student evaluation of teaching: reactions of Australian academics to anonymous non-constructive student commentary, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 49:2, 154-164
DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2023.2195598

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