Feedback from students – who cares?

Post by: Ruth Moeller. Cartoon by: Karl Horton.

Feedback from students – who cares? I do!

I couldn’t believe my ears! Sitting in an assessment workshop, a fellow in the group next to me was discussing the CES, the university’s student feedback scheme. “I just throw my survey in the bin! The first time I read my survey results I was so depressed so now I don’t bother, I just bin them. All you can do is try your best and if they aren’t happy with that, what can you do!” I was shocked; in all my career as an educator, I have been conscious of the value and importance of feedback from student/participants.

To be honest, sometimes it’s not nice, and can be even downright frustrating and hurtful, “given all the effort I put in!” But I ignore it at my peril!

Distilling my teaching efforts down into the CES, especially the six questions that, in Australia, make up the Good Teaching Scale (GTS) feels simplistic but taking time to unpack it can be valuable. The CES is the ‘official’ feedback on my teaching but there are a range of other ways I get feedback that I can use to tailor, guide and reinforce my teaching. There are the intuitive, informal ways such as: are they attending; asking questions; slumped over the desks gently snoring; asking and answering questions? Then there are some simple strategies that you can use to get a sense of what they have learned such as the muddiest point or list three thing you learned today.  These techniques provide instant feedback on the learning occurring in your class.

Let’s look more broadly at how I get feedback on the subject and how it is being taught. When I talk about feedback what do I mean? Is it about how much the students like me? What they are learning? What they are understanding (or not)? How much they are enjoying the course? To get useful feedback, you need to think about what you want to know. Asking “Do you enjoy/like the course” gets different information to asking, “What have you learned?” A way to determine what to ask is to consider, what will you do with the answer?  If the students “enjoyed the classes finishing early”, it’s not particularly helpful, but if they “learned how to analyse statistical information to draw conclusions about …” that you can do something with it, ie. repeat it next time. Likewise, asking about what they don’t like may give you an unproductive list, whereas requesting ideas for improvement is more likely to provide constructive suggestions.

Recently after the mid semester break, I asked my students:

• How’s it going so far?

• What are the key things you have learned?

• What would you like to know more about?

• Is there anything else you would like to add?

I gave them a chance to get their thoughts together first. Next, they discussed the questions with a partner and then shared with the group (Think, pair, share). I noted their responses on the whiteboard – this allowed me to show them how much they have learned, keep a record for follow-up or further development and finally, demonstrated that I take what they say seriously.

I did try to use Twitter to get student feedback from the same group but with only one tweet, I need to re-think that approach. Any suggestions on this are welcome!

At the end of the semester, I also seek feedback using a model I came across in a PD session several years ago. Using the focus questions:

• What have you learned in this course?

• How could this course be improved for next year’s students?

• Is there anything else you would like to add?

Students are given five minutes thinking time to answer the questions for themselves, then in groups they discuss and clarify individual responses and develop a group response that is captured on butcher’s paper. This serves two purposes: firstly students can share and compare their learning and be reminded of what they have learned. And secondly through discussion, they clarify their ideas and moderate individual input to provide feedback that represents the broader ideas of the group. I have found this strategy to be really valuable because if you have had student comments like:

• The tutes are a waste of time

• The assessment wasn’t clear

• Need more time

• Boring

you’re left wondering “What!?” Using this model stops these valueless comments (valueless because you are left uncertain as to what they mean and importantly what to do with them) because the students have to explain what they mean and that’s what is captured by the group on the BP.

Some words of warning: Don’t over-survey your students; a colleague was telling me that she used the GTS questions at the mid-point of her subject to get feedback from her students, but at the end, when the official survey was done, students were jaded, responding dismissively to a survey that they felt they had already completed. CES fatigue!

Like with prayer, sometime the answer is “No!” – I strongly advocate seeking and addressing student feedback. But that doesn’t mean you need to accept and act on all the input. As the teaching professional, there may be sound professional or disciplinary based reasons you chose not to change and, letting students know what you are willing and not willing to change demonstrates you respect their input. But ultimately you manage the learning environment.

For me, feedback from students is an ongoing process, as we are in the learning process together.

8 responses to “Feedback from students – who cares?

  1. M-H 28 September, 2011 at 10:45

    Student surveys are such a can of worms! I agree that lecturers need to act like grownups and accept that they won’t be all things to all students. But I think that when you receive comments about how you dress, or other personal comments, it can be really hard for staff to find these surveys useful.

    Another issue with them is that sometimes student feedback is used to justify curriculum changes that aren’t useful. Just because students don’t see the relevance of something it shouldn’t be grounds to stop teaching it – I have known this to happen, rather than asking how staff can change their teaching to make the relevance clearer.

  2. theteachingtomtom 28 September, 2011 at 12:27

    Can of worms they may be but useful to poke around in – Students gave feedback to a colleague of mine that she often played with coins in her pocket and this was distracting – after getting over her irritation at the superficiality of the comment, she thought about it, removed the coins (and anything else from her pockets) and the distraction was gone. Some more esoteric feedback can be a challenge to appreciate and very occasionally, down right mean -there can be the value of unpacking and debriefing with another to get some perspective on the matter and then choose what you do with the information but at least consider it.

    On the other hand, I can remember a lecturer when I was a student who would rock backwards and forwards, from his heel to toe, from heel to toe, from heel to … you get my drift – we said nothing , just were hypnotized by the rocking and occasionally speculated what would happen if he rocked too far back. I assume he continues to rock (and distract) today.

  3. Seymour Jacobson 4 October, 2011 at 07:12

    Tangaroa Nga Iwi

    I have tried hard to take these surveys seriously and I am impressed by the consistency of answers that are revealed when the whole student cohort is taken into consideration rather than one class’s results, BUT I despair when:
    1. I see surveys where the students do not apparently know which side of the scale is up and which is down
    2. I see surveys completed with the rows of dots filled in to make a picture of some kind
    3. The survey is done in the same session that I have just returned assignments which, according to how each student achieved, may destroy 8 weeks of positive attitude
    4. Surveys are served to students six times over a 2 day period, by the last they are too jaded to care

  4. theteachingtomtom 4 October, 2011 at 10:58

    Absolutely – an issue is that the CES surveys are important to us but students often fail to see the value for them in completing the surveys.

    One piece of advice that I have been given is to let students know what has been done as a result of the feedback given ie “based on the feedback from last years student I …” This at least gives the students a sense that what they say is taken seriously.

  5. merifully 16 November, 2012 at 14:15

    I’m a middle school teacher in the US, and so we a totally different system, but the feedback issues are so similar. Frustrated, I started asking students to write a letter to my next class. I ask them to tell the next year’s students what they think a new student would need to know in order to be successful in my class. I often read a selection of the letters to my new students, and so they know that I am taking their input seriously. Sometimes students give the best feedback about you when they aren’t actually talking to you (even though they really are).

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  7. Pingback: Student feedback: What it can and can’t tell us | theteachingtomtom

  8. jane Bluestein 3 June, 2013 at 04:17

    Ruth, I completely agree. I’ve recently posted a blog on the importance of GIVING meaningful feedback to kids (http://janebluestein.com/2013/thumbs-up-thumbs-down/) and also have a blog offering “A Report Card for My Teacher” on my site (http://janebluestein.com/2012/report-card-for-my-teacher/). I have included links to this post on both of these pages. Kids notice so many things about who we are and how we teach. (I once “caught” a kid doing an impression of me that was so spot on, I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to finish the lesson.) I also find them to be quite willing to share useful information when they feel safe and know their input will be taken seriously. Thank you for the work you’re doing.

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