GETTING FEEDBACK FROM STUDENTS

Giving formative feedback to your students while they are learning (to tell them what their strengths and weaknesses are and how they can improve) is more valuable for their learning than the final summative grade.

The same holds true for instructors. Getting feedback from your students while the course is progressing as to what is going well and what is not is more useful for improving the course than getting the final course evaluations long after it is ended.

There are many ways to get immediate feedback from your students on the various aspects of your teaching and how effective they find them and they are listed below. But before you do any, bear in mind some general principles.

General principles

1. Don't ask for feedback that you cannot or do not want to act upon. Do not open up for discussion what you think are the core ideas or organizing principles of the course or whatever else you think is essential to preserve its academic integrity.

2. Be as concrete and as specific as you can be about the requested feedback. (e.g., "How many pages/hours/chapters per week of outside reading do you think are reasonable?" is better than "Are the readings too much?" And "What kind of feedback on your papers is helpful to you?" is better than "Is the feedback useful?"

3. As much as possible, act upon the suggestions in the very next class and tell the class that you are doing so in response to their suggestions.

4. If a suggestion is made that might appear simple and reasonable from the point of view of students but that you are prevented from implementing for reasons that they are either unaware of (say university rules) or because of ramifications they have not thought about, explain the reasons why you cannot carry out the suggestion.

5. Avoid voting on issues as much as possible. The losing minority tends to feel aggrieved. If faced with comparable options, random chance seems to be a better method of selection than voting.

Improving the rate of return of the university teaching evaluations

Since student ratings of courses have now gone online, the number of respondents has decreased. The Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State University has an excellent report based on their own study that provides good suggestions for how to improve the yield, using the experiences of faculty who do get good responses. (Click on the + signs on the left of each item to see some of the comments on specific strategies used to increase yield.)

In a private communication, Dr. Angela Linse (Executive Director of the Institute and one of the authors of the study along with Dr. Chas Brua) provided further information, such as that the selection criteria for inclusion in the study were those classes that had ≥70% response rate and ≥30 enrollment (range: 30-493) and it did not include graduate or upper-level majors courses. The authors report that the faculty who got these high response rates "overwhelmingly manage to communicate that student views are important, that they respect students, that they regularly ask for student feedback during the semester, and that they have used previous student feedback to improve their teaching and courses." These faculty did NOT emphasize to students the role these played in the promotion and tenure process.

The authors also say that the option of holding back grades unless students complete evaluations does not make much sense and faculty who suggest it usually drop the idea when it is pointed out to them that creating a punitive system for completing student evaluations of teaching potentially puts faculty at risk of even worse evaluations than they perhaps deserve, because students are completing the forms under duress. Furthermore, there are other drawbacks to this practice, such as:

• Holding back grades cannot be done indefinitely.

• Holding back grades, which should reflect students' work/performance, could be seen as unethical, if not downright illegal, if done in order to make them do something that is unrelated to their learning.

• The timing of the punishment may not allow corrective action. If students are not allowed to evaluate courses after the last day of class (i.e. during finals week or after the semester has ended), holding back grades might have absolutely no impact. Many institutions require evaluations to be completed before final grades are released in order to prevent negative ratings from students merely because they are unhappy with their final grades.

In conversations with students, the authors also reported that they "all said that if they believed a faculty member thought the students' views were important, they made the effort to complete the ratings. They all said that if they felt the faculty member did not care, they did not participate."

Using Blackboard

One way to get feedback is using your Blackboard course website. Go to the Control Panel, then (under Assessment) select Survey Manager, and then click on Add Survey. You can create a whole variety of survey questions and responses. The survey can then be added as an assignment.

Once the students have taken the survey, the results are tabulated anonymously and the results can be seen by going to the Control Panel, clicking on Gradebook, then clicking on Course Survey. This gives you various options for viewing the results. Assessment Attempt Details is the one I favor.

You can look at the various online surveys below to get ideas for questions that you can ask on your own survey. The simplest option that works quite well is to ask the three questions listed below under "informal, verbal feedback."

Other online surveys

The Classroom Assessment Techniques website from the National Teaching and Learning Forum has suggestions of questions and various mechanisms that you can use to ask them.

The attitude surveys described in the FLAG website (which stands for Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide) have other ideas for questions you can ask.

The SALG website (which stands for Student Assessment of Learning Gains) is another site for creating your own, free customized, web-based, on-line feedback form.

Another site that you can use to create customized online surveys can be found at Survey Monkey. This is a commercial site but the basic service subscription has no charge.

Quick and easy and low-tech

A convenient low-tech way of getting immediate feedback is the one-minute paper. At the end of each class, ask the students to write down on a sheet of paper (anonymously) their response to one or both of the following questions and drop it in a box on their way out. (Or you can make up your own questions. See the link for more details.)

1. What is the biggest unanswered question they leave class with?

2. What did they think was the main point of today's class?

A quick read of the papers after class will give you a good sense of what was learned and what was still puzzling. It is important that you start the very next class with your responses to some or all of the student comments, so that students realize that you are reading their comments and taking them seriously.

Informal, verbal feedback

A very simple thing that you can do is to set aside about 15 minutes at the end of a class after about three weeks of the semester have passed, or after a major test/assignment, and have the students brainstorm and give responses to three questions:

1. What is the instructor doing that helps you learn?

2. What is the instructor doing that hinders your learning?

3. What suggestions can you give for overcoming the issues raised in 2?

You will need a moderator to take notes during the discussion and provide you with a verbal report afterwards. While you can be the moderator, this might hinder a frank discussion. It may be better for you to leave the room during the discussion and have someone else moderate.

You have these options:

a) You can ask the class to select a student moderator who will give you the report.

b) You can ask a department colleague or graduate student to do it.

c) You can ask UCITE if they are available to do it.

Sample feedback survey

The College and University Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI) has 48 questions that you can use to get feedback about your classroom environment.You can use it in its entirety or you can select those questions that are of most interest to you. In the left hand column I have classified the questions under five categories:

  • attitude towards students
  • student-student relationships
  • student interest and motivation
  • class organization
  • autonomy and power sharing