EBEFL asks: Should we listen to students?

At IATEFL Silvana Richardson, Scott Thornbury and Chris Smith (2015) all made reference to student opinion.  

  • Smith carried out research on students’ views of oral feedback and found that they really liked being directly corrected by the teacher and don’t feel they get enough correction. He made the argument that we ought to listen to students and correct them more.*
  • Thornbury noted in a poll he had carried out that the major reason teachers continue to teach the grammatical syllabus is that they believe students expect it. 
  • Richardson reported that many schools claim students don’t want NNS teachers and thus won’t employ them. She asked ‘is the customer always right?’ and argued that we should try to educate students and get them to see the error of their ways. 
I think the idea that we should listen to students has an certain ideological appeal. It fits nicely with concepts like learner-centred teaching, autonomy, negotiated syllabus, and other fashionable terms. So it feels good, but is it a good idea?

I would expect most people would say ‘it depends’. Should we listen to students for instance if they say:

  • the class is boring? 
  • they think I’m a wonderful teacher? 
  • there are too many tests? 
  • they feel stressed out? 
  • they want more grammar?
  • the material isn‘t very good?
  • they don’t like the teacher?
  • they want a native speaker teacher? 
  • they want a male teacher
  • they want a white teacher

I have to confess at this point that I’ve marshalled students in defence of an argument I was making. I argued that “If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine. It’s their money.” Yet In a talk I gave on student evaluation of teachers I concluded that we really shouldn’t be paying too much attention to students’ opinions on teacher quality as they’re not experts in teaching and because research suggests their views are largely based on things other than teaching (how much they like the teacher, how attractive the teacher is etc, etc etc). 

So when should we listen to students, -only when they already say what we want to hear? 


*Smith’s opinion was also based on a review of literature which showed oral EC to be effective.