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Student ratings of lecturer-related characteristics most conductive to establishing and maintaining an ideal learning environment in higher education

John Watts
University of Central Queensland
Since the late 1980s, student evaluations of course units and lecturers' teaching performances have gained a higher profile in higher education institutions, becoming standard practice and providing an important input to the process of developing department/school, faculty and university academic profiles. It is in a context of the conjunction of the nexus between professional academic integrity and academic appraisal, and the value of student evaluations, that this paper reports on the findings of two recent independently conducted studies from the Faculties of Business and Education, CQU, which related to student evaluations of the participating lecturers, course units taken, and learning environments experienced. Findings suggest that the characteristics most conducive to establishing and maintaining an ideal learning environment are consistent and cohesive across a range of student backgrounds. Characteristics of major importance to students fell within three orientations, (a) effective, (b) interpersonal, and (c) organisational. It is suggested that, in order to improve the educative process in higher education, these orientations and associated characteristics will need to be practically addressed in both internal and open learning contexts. Finally, it is suggested that the notions of "experienced learning " and "play " need to be seriously investigated in the quest for enhanced student learning.


The learning welfare of students has gained in importance over the last decade, as a greater variety of pressures upon institutions of higher learning functionally links student welfare to funding and income. From a professional perspective, lecturers have now to place more concern on the learning-related welfare of their students, partly because of the transition to mass education, and partly because of the competition for students. Currently, student welfare in learning must be considered in a context of learning planning and management including, (a) clear communication, and (b) willingness to change (flexibility), and (c) enabling learning conditions (adapted from Watts, 1995). External factors, such as the Green Paper on higher education (Dawkins, 1987), have added impetus to the focus on student welfare. The Green Paper, for example, linked university funding to academic performance within a competitive environment, and raised the issue of academic staff appraisal to a higher level than previously attained. Consequently, student evaluations of units and lecturers' teaching performance have gained a higher profile, have become standard practice, and provided an important input to the process of developing faculty, college or university academic profiles.

This paper reports on the findings of two recent, independently conducted, case studies from the Faculties of Business and Education, CQU, relating to student evaluations. The two case studies were used to view commonalities in the way that student evaluations were used to improve lecturer/unit programs, particularly in using student feedback to enhance the quality of the subject content and delivery. One objective behind the studies was to enhance the quality of the interactive teaching-learning environment through the effective utilisation of student feedback. Case Study A was developed from an eight-year distance education longitudinal student evaluation research project. A survey was conducted to canvass the views of 40 internal postgraduate students in both Graduate Diploma in Management(GDM) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs within the Faculty of Business. Case Study B was developed over a period of four years via a series of workshops with third-year undergraduate internal Bachelor of Education students (approximately 200 students).

Guiding Premises

The value of student evaluations

Within the context of the preceding guiding premises, it is argued that the importance of interactive feedback should be treated as non-problematic. Interactive feedback implies that feedback is not simply a matter of lecturers commenting on the learning of students. It includes a reciprocity principle of students being able to comment on a lecturer's feedback as well as commenting on the teaching learning situation as a whole. Interactive feedback incorporates the understanding of the student as client-learner, with institutions being responsible for the student as a learner as well as meeting the market needs of the student. Consequently, lecturer-student feedback interaction is understood to be more horizontal than vertical, and is ultimately more concerned with the process and implementation of learning rather than the development and administration of educational policy, though the latter has its place.

Romiszowski (1981) noted that communication may be a one-way transfer of information from teacher to student through an information medium, or a two-way communications medium carrying information both ways, including feedback from students. In the authors' opinion, it would seem that the latter interactive system is necessary for person interface learning and open learning to be most effective, and that interactive feedback is an important aspect of the teaching-learning process. However, there is a fundamental difference between person interface learning and open learning.

The very notion of interactive feedback in person interface teaching-learning implies the importance in communication of non-verbals such as "body language" as well as an understanding of language itself. For instance, in the person-interface situation, if it is accepted that nonverbal communication between lecturers and students exerts an important influence upon feedback in the teaching-learning process, and if it is estimated that approximately 90% of all information whatsoever, is carried not so much by the actual words spoken, but by the body language that goes with those words, and accompanied by the quality, tone and intonation of the voice (Elgin, 1989), then there are emerging implications for non-interactive feedback given only via written or audio comments, for example, in distance and open education. It is the authors' viewpoint (formulated as assertions) that (a) from a learning perspective, person interface teaching with interactive feedback is superior to other modes of delivery; (b) an understanding of the best characteristics of interactive feedback with internal students is a stepping stone to the understanding of best practices in the largely unknown field of establishing and maintaining an enhanced learning environment for students in the distance and open learning situations; and (c) the comparative effectiveness of feedback in the two situations provides a rich field for future research, as well for the research and development of feedback mechanisms for open learning, equivalent, if possible, to person interface interactive feedback. For example, though it may be argued that the use of media such as instructional television is neither superior nor inferior to classroom presentation (McCleary & Egan, 1989; Whittington, 1987), research may find that there are differences in the value and medium-to-long range effectiveness of feedback occurring in the two situations.

Student feedback is considered to be educationally important for instructional, psychosocial and contextual evaluations. Multi-directional feedback on student learning, including intrinsic interest, proactive involvement and deep understanding, is arguably superior to unidirectional feedback involving communication from the lecturer (as authoritarian figure) to the student (as passive figure) stated in right-wrong terms, since the latter may lack meaning (Ausubel, 1968), or narrow motivation to achievement (Good & Brophy, 1986). Feedback, in its broadest perspective, should help to confirm, correct, clarify, and evaluate learning (Ausubel, 1968). Part of its function is to assist a lecturer's judgment in determining, for example, the best positioning of unit content, the teaching-learning communication processes, and appropriate instructional designs (Seels, 1993).

Case study A (Business)

The target population of 40 students was comprised of 34 full-time international students, representing seven nationalities (Viz., India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Hong Kong), and six part-time mature-aged Australian students. Two separate instruments, a self-administered questionnaire and a student-conducted workshop, were used to identify and rank what students perceived to be the most important lecturer-related characteristics after a full semester's exposure to the unit. The questionnaire canvassed 30 separate characteristics of which seven were specifically directed at the lecturer's teaching style and skills. Characteristics were ranked on a 1 to 10 scale of ascending merit with an invitation to provide explanatory comments on each rating. The survey was administered in the last week of the semester when students had received the results of progressive assessment accounting for 50% of the total marks in the unit. Students were given the option of remaining anonymous but 33 students chose to insert their names on the questionnaire.

The rank order in terms of perceived importance obtained was:

Supporting comments emphasised the attractiveness of a friendly or non-authoritarian class environment, the lecturer's capacity to listen, willingness to canvas students' views, provision of encouragement, ability to clearly impart knowledge, placing stress on the more important aspects, lecturer's in-depth knowledge of subject matter, and care and fairness in assessment. The average ratings given all of the above characteristics was 9.25, which is the highest recorded in 33 surveys using the same questionnaire over an eight-year period. The characteristics noted raised the possibility of cross-cultural differences in the evaluation of a particular lecturer's style, attitude and personality.

Dunbar (1988) observed that "continuous, formal student feedback in the form of projects, assignments, essays and presentations is not normally a feature of Asian education" (p. 13). Perhaps the novelty of being introduced to formal and informal interactive feedback and learning sessions where, for example, students--somewhat reluctantly at first, but later with great enthusiasm--gave short presentations in front of the class, influenced these higher ratings. Another contributing factor could be the Asian respect for academic authority coupled with seniority leading to what Dunbar (1988) refers to as "unquestioning acceptance of the knowledge of the teacher or lecturer" (p. 14). In this instance the non-reliance on videos and sparing use of overhead transparencies was singled out, suggesting that Asian students respond to a more personalised approach to imparting knowledge, particularly when it is imparted 'naturally'.

Johnson (1991, p. 13) observed that students from Third-World countries tended to be more highly motivated than students from advanced economies due partly to the fact that they have strong family group obligations to fulfil, and academic success means acquiring status within these groups, rather than achieving some individualistic self-realisation objective. This may account in part for the greater appreciation shown by Asian students toward lecturer commitment and interest in their personal academic learning welfare.

The second evaluation took the form of a loosely structured workshop over a ninety minute period. Its purpose was to check whether or not the coverage of characteristics in the survey questionnaire was adequate and to detect if there were significant cross-cultural differences in students' perceptions. Four 'natural' leaders were requested to form groups of seven from the 28 international students who attended with a view to identifying the five most important aspects of the unit. At this stage, the results of the student evaluation survey were unknown. Students were advised that the main purpose of the exercise was to find out if the perceptions of international students differed significantly from those of Australian students in terms of lecturer style, assessment procedures and general attitude. With this in mind, each student was asked to nominate the three most important aspects of the unit's delivery. Group leaders summarised the results and the four sets of findings were displayed and consolidated into a rank order.

In rank order, the five most important characteristics identified were:

Other aspects raised by the groups included (a) well-managed pace of delivery; (b) friendly, non-threatening disposition; (c) clarity of expectations in relation to learning objectives and unit evaluation; (d) clear responses to students' questions; (e) non-use of videos and a sparing use of pre-prepared overhead transparencies; (f' knowledge of the world (experience); and (g) 'natural' lecturing aptitude.

The questions in the previously administered survey may have had a persuasive influence on the characteristics nominated at the workshop. It would have been better to have reversed the order. It was found that all the top rated characteristics were identified by both evaluation procedures and, given the above reservations, the findings of the workshop endorsed the student evaluation survey in terms of the most important characteristics identified.

Case study B (Education)

The population for this study consisted of four cohorts of third year preservice Bachelor of Education students training to be primary school teachers. All were internal students, with the cohorts over the four years inclusive of mature-age, special entry, and school leaver modes of entry. Students were studying a unit in mathematics education. For each cohort of students, workshops totalled a time period of three hours, followed by a protocol of abstracting from students their perceptions of the ideal unit, the ideal teacher, the ideal learning environment, their understanding of qualities of an outstanding teacher, their preferences for learning, their annoyances in the teaching-learning process, and finally those characteristics that are more likely to intrinsically motivate them to be cooperative in the learning process.

The ideal unit was deemed to have/be:

Rankings of the characteristics were taken from student ratings, and indicated that students preferred the following order of characteristics in the ideal unit: (a) linking to real life; (b) variety of learning experiences; (c) individual needs and learning styles being addressed; (d) hands-on activities; (e) linking to student interests; (f) building upon previous knowledge; (g) motivation and interest; and (h) meeting of students' real needs.

Many of these characteristics are not new to research findings, and are foundational to the development of practical or workable theory in teaching, learning and assessment practices. A number of constructs and assertions may be posited from this list which could form a basis for continuing research. Two exemplary assertions follow, which will form a basis for ongoing research by the authors.

  1. Students obviously are concerned with relevancy and purpose, as noted from the findings. As such, it may be asserted that student learning is a function of student experience and interest, whether past, present or future. This assertion is in line with constructivist thinking which would argue that learners' new understandings are dependent on prior knowledge and experiences (e.g., Taylor & Campbell-Williams, 1993), but would argue further that new understandings are also dependent on current (present-oriented) and future (futures-oriented) experiences and interests. It seems, from the authors' experiences, that as students progressively mature, the present- and future-oriented experiences and interests have a greater influence upon student learning than past and present interests and experiences. In the design of the unit, the better the "fit" between students' present and future experiences and interests and the unit, the greater the intrinsic motivation and the greater the depth of meaningful learning. This does not discount, however, the importance of past knowledge and experiences. It should be noted that experienced learning moves beyond the notion of "real life" learning, in that the real life content pertinent to curriculum designers may not be experienced by the student. An analogy could be the difference between a careers advisor describing a particular career (real life) to a student, and the student actually taking part in that career via work experience (experienced learning) as a student. Learning about and learning through are different from a learner's perspective. The work experience concept has implications for learning, for example, in mathematics, where mathematical thinking is more likely to occur for most students if it fits with their mathematical experiences.

  2. Most researchers would agree that the interrelated notions of participation and interaction, fun and enjoyment in learning are generally ranked highly by students. In higher education teaching and learning, however, the psycho-social idea of play is not generally considered, though research into preschool and lower primary schooling has begun to refocus on the concept of play and its importance to intrinsic motivation in learning. Constructivists, it is assumed, are positively oriented to play, since play normally uses social interactive language important to constructivists (Taylor & Campbell-Williams, 1993; Vygotsky, 1962), and therefore is an ideal way for students to construct meaning. Yet, in spite of the considerable findings from research on the importance to learning of fun, enjoyment, stimulation, and so forth, there seems to be little attention being paid to play in the design of course units in higher learning. Rather, it appears that play and learning become more mutually exclusive the higher the grade of learning. The lack of focus on play, which is an active concept, may also be a reflection of society, corresponding partly to rapid technological advances in media communication, partly to economic constraints, and partly to Australia's history in education. Accordingly, a key assertion from this study is that the notion of play needs to be positively redefined and taken seriously in higher education, and that it be given due consideration by researchers and practitioners. For example, if it is accepted that play is a valuable learning vehicle for children, it would seem profitable to find the characteristics of play that make it enjoyable to players. These characteristics, it is assumed, would have significance for learning in higher education. A starting point from this study would see play, by definition, enveloping characteristics such as variety, motivating, stimulating, fun and enjoyable, exploring and imagining, all mentioned by the students. The problem arises then of how to implement the notion of play into curriculum design to suit an (a) internal person interface interactive learning environment, and (b) open (inclusive of distance) learning environment. As noted in The value of student evaluations previously, because of the importance of body language, it would seem that person interface learning would be more conducive to play than open learning situations, and therefore poses problems for transferring the positive characteristics of person interface teaching to their equivalent characteristics in open and distance learning. Can they actually be replaced, and if so, by what?
The ideal teacher was deemed to have/be: Qualities of an outstanding teacher related to a teacher being organised, enthusiastic, committed, communicative, understanding individual needs of students, relating well to students and having confidence in them. On the other hand, annoyances had mostly to do with characteristics such as disorganised, domineering lecturers, the lecturer who is never wrong, ignorant and uninformed critics, poor communication, unreliability, sarcasm, personal criticism and yelling at students, students and lecturers who were not willing to try. Things that would help students to be cooperative included patience, interest, enthusiasm, interaction and involvement, being accepted as an individual, being listened to, and value in work being done.

Ranking of the characteristics was taken from student ratings, and indicated that students preferred the following order of characteristics in the ideal teacher: (a) sound organisation; (b) involvement with and caring for students as individuals; (c) enthusiasm; (d) variety in teaching approaches; and (e) approachability.

Ranking of characteristics preferred by students for the outstanding teacher was (a) understands individual needs; (b) organised; (c) enthusiastic; (d) good communicator; and (e) relates well to students. Ranking of characteristics for annoyances was (a) disorganised; (b) sarcasm; (c) mass punishment for individual misdemeanour; (d) personal criticism; and (e) poor communicator. On the other hand, ranking for characteristics associated with being cooperative was (a) interaction and involvement; (b) being listened to; (c) patience; (d) being accepted as a person; and (e) enthusiasm.

It is to be remembered that these were internal students in regular personal contact with their lecturer, so that many of the characteristics stem from person interface interrelationships and interactions. It is noted that the characteristics chosen by these university professionals in-training were similar to those evidenced by research into the ideal teacher for gifted students (Baldwin, 1993). For example, Fleming and Takacs (1983) in pairing characteristics of the gifted student with those of the ideal teacher, suggested the following teacher roles and characteristics: (a) scholar - high intellectual ability; (b) generalist - versatile; (c) facilitator - provides opportunities; (d) originator - enjoys ideas and challenges; (e) liberator - patient, accepts and listens; (f) instructor - superior teaching ability; (g) guide - helps find right interests; (h) friend - sensitive to problems, respect for goals and dreams; (i) counsellor - provides opportunities; and (j) wit and enthusiast high self-concept and good sense of humour.

These characteristics were also similar to themes found in a textual analysis of writings from higher education lecturers of excellence who were recipients of Vice-Chancellors' Awards for Teaching Excellence in 1991 (Watts, 1994). Here it was found that teachers of excellence (a) exhibited an enthusiasm and commitment to/for their topics and students; (b) made relevant to contemporary life the material and content covered; (c) displayed a range of teaching strategies beyond that of the lecture, including student participation, debating, critical argument, group work, joint answers and reports, and participatory teaching by students; (d) considered planning from aims to reporting as essential; (e) made transparent clearly defined structures; (f) provided formative and diagnostic feedback reasonably quickly; (g) were 'real' with students; (h) were often natural, empathising, caring, possessing the qualities of courtesy, respect and fairness; (i) were likely to be consistent, and possess ethical wisdom; (j) had the ability to 'read' where students were at in their understanding and participation; and (k) considered practical classes to be vital.

It may be posited from the above and other research data that students in general value similar characteristics in their perception of an ideal teacher. The characteristics are formidable, and closely relate to the characteristics of the ideal unit and the following characteristics for the ideal learning environment. Given that the ideal teacher characteristics are reasonably consistent and coherent across a spectrum of student backgrounds, it would seem that all teachers and teacher educators could be guided by such characteristics.

The ideal learning environment was perceived as:

Students' preferences for learning included learning work that was hands-on, relevant and/or related to real life, flexible enough to allow choice of different learning styles, imaginative, with opportunities for group work and to challenge and be challenged.

Ranking of the characteristics was taken from student ratings, and indicated that students preferred the following characteristics in the ideal learning environment: (a) non-threatening; (b) cater for student interests; (c) supportive; (d) stimulating; (e) student centred; and (f) nurturing/welcoming. Ranking for preferences for learning was (a) hands-on; (b) linked to real life; (c) opportunity for choice of learning styles; (d) relevance to needs; (e) group work; and (f) challenge and be challenged.

As noted before, these characteristics are similar to those found in research associated with gifted and talented students. Lapan (1989), for example, suggested the following similar characteristics for the ideal program for gifted children: (a) an atmosphere rich in ideas in which a spirit of adventure, exploration, openness and responsibility is present; (b) higher thought processes should be emphasised; (c) tolerance for divergent approaches and solutions; (d) innovation, some aspect of learning not met in regular classes; and (e) care to be taken not to damage the student's feelings of self-confidence and feelings of worth (avoiding regimentation, sarcasm and threats, over-expectations and intense competition).

It may be posited from the above and other research data that students in general value similar characteristics in their perception of the ideal learning environment. The characteristics closely relate to the characteristics of the ideal unit and the ideal teacher, indicating first that a consistent and cohesive orientation towards the ideal teaching-learning context exists, and second that this orientation may transcend culture, age, sex and ability. If this is accepted, then it must be granted that these characteristics give clear guidelines for institutions of learning in the design of student materials for person interface and open teaching and learning, for the selection, education and training of teachers, and for appropriate learning and assessment environments.

As a result of student evaluations and interactive feedback, the mathematics education unit from which this study emerged now includes flexible assignments directly related to the present and future interests and experiences of each student, with clear expectations for criteria-based assessment. Student participation, interaction and involvement have increased, using a variety of learning experiences including the use of workshops, seminars and debates.


Student evaluations indicated that student perceptions and preferences relating to characteristics of teaching, learning and assessment practices of the units reviewed, were consistent and coherent. Characteristics were found to be similar across the studies, and in line with previous research findings.

Table 1: Comparison of student rankings of ideal lecturer-related characteristics :

1stimulation of interest/enthusiasmsound organisation
2personal interest/caring for students and commitment to their academic welfareinvolvement with and caring for student as individuals
3inspiring confidenceenthusiasm
4establishing effective holistic communicationvariety in teaching approaches
5encouragement through constructive and supportive feedbackapproachability

Table 2: Comparison of student rankings of ideal and outstanding teacher in Education

1understands individual needssound organisation
2organisedinvolvement with and caring for student as individuals
4good communicatorvariety in teaching approaches
5relates well to studentsapproachability

The rankings of characteristics indicate several orientations important to students which are posited as follows:

The affective characteristics delineated from student evaluations in the educative process are crucial to the long-range learning attitudes of students. Higher education cannot continue to concentrate only on the transmission of content concepts for internal and open modes of educational delivery, even when delivery modes may be innovative and technologically advanced in their own right. Innovations in methods of delivery will need to be complemented by addressing the learning orientations as posited from these studies, with considerations being given, for example, as to how to incorporate a learning ethos inclusive of the three student orientations noted from the studies. It would seem that educators will have to consider the influences of factors such as nonverbal communication, enabling skills for effective constructive scaffolding of knowledge, and more interaction and involvement being granted to students in the development, maintenance and evaluation of units, delivery styles and lecturer performances. Similarities were found with preferred learning environments, including a non-threatening learning environment and the ability to cater for the various needs of students across cultures and delivery modes. International students were similar to internal students in that they were acutely aware of the importance of the affective aspects of the learning process.

The student-client approach, which in some ways coincides with a constructivist approach, appears to be worthwhile for the improvement of teaching, learning and assessment processes for undergraduate and postgraduate, national and international, internal and open learning students using varying modes of delivery. Student evaluations have improved the units considered in this paper, with the authors implementing improvements on the basis of a series of such evaluations. There is recognition of the fact that many lecturers are doing the same type of evaluations. However, the studies raise a number of issues to be considered for teaching and learning in person interface and non-person interface approaches (e.g., computer interfacing, printed text).


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Please cite as: Watts, J. (1996). Student ratings of lecturer-related characteristics most conductive to establishing and maintaining an ideal learning environment in higher education. Queensland Researcher, 12(2), 33-47. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr12/watts.html

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