there’s something in my inbox

Post by Ruth Moeller.

Sitting in my inbox is an email from the university’s survey centre. It’s been there for a week. I am working up to opening it. I know what it contains; it’s the results of the Course Experience Survey (CES) for the subject I teach.

CES (HE & VET Vocational Education & Training) is the official feedback survey from my students, comprising the Good Teaching Scale (GTS) and Overall Student Satisfaction (OSI). The six questions that make up the GTS really cover the aspects of teaching practice as they ask about: motivating, commenting on work, understanding student difficulties, giving feedback, interesting delivery and clearly explaining content. On reflection, all of these are fundamental to quality teaching.

On a general level, the CES provides us with a statistical snapshot of the student view of their subject, it is a useful tool to review what is working and what could be worked on – I know that the stats can be cold and there is an opportunity for comments, but it’s a clear starting point for discussion and reflection. In fact, when discussing the CES with other teaching staff, I encourage them to work with it rather than rail against it, though there can be something satisfying and cathartic about bagging the instrument and its calculating manner.

Each time I receive my CES feedback, I find it thrilling and depressing in equal measure. Thrilling, as it is a way of finding out if the students’ experience was what I hoped it would be. And depressing as it is such a cold measure, a percentage that represents a semester’s teaching (work).

A common frustration I hear from colleagues is that although they have given plenty of feedback on students’ work, when it comes to the GTS, they are rated as not providing enough. As one colleague said, “we discuss all their ideas, do pin-ups where we have peer and teacher input and at the end we do an overall critique. What more do they want?” Potentially two things are at play here, quantity of feedback not equating with quality, and/or students being asked about ‘feedback’ doesn’t automatically equate with the language of ‘discussion, pin-ups and critiques’.

I know there will be people out there thinking, “surely they know what feedback is” but if you think about it, for us, the GTS has great meaning and purpose (both for better & worse), whereas for many students, it can be seen as an impost. If they cannot link their experience with what is being asked in the survey, there would be a disconnect. With this in mind, the practical advice I can offer is, if it looks like feedback, sounds like feedback, then call it feedback- educate them in the discourse (language) that is important. You can take this a step further by linking the language of the discipline’s discourse, with the language of education discourse; “We are going to conduct critiques, where you will be giving and receiving feedback ……”.

GTS irritations come in many ways; a colleague tells of being rated 44% for the statement “The staff made a real effort to understand the difficulties I might be having with my work.” When he reviewed the stats, the students either rated him as positive (44%) or not applicable (53%) – he has drawn the conclusion that 53% had no issues and accurately responded to the question; ie. they didn’t hypothesis what he would do. Understandably frustrated by this as it had a negative impact on his overall GTS, he has employed the tactic of overtly checking in with his students at key points in the semester; seeing if they are having any difficulties and if they do, asking if he can help. Now some may say that this is manipulative, but others, including myself say it is making the implicit, explicit. He has always been a thoughtful and caring teacher, and is now making sure that his students are reminded of that, with the side benefit being if a student was unsure about whether they should approach him about an issue, they have an explicit invitations to do so.

Teaching to the GTS could be seen as calculating but for me it is good professional practice. If, when teaching I address all aspects of the GTS, I would by definition be a ‘good’ teacher, and by ensuring that the language I use reflects the language of the GTS, this gives students the fair opportunity to reflect and give feedback on my practice in an informed way.

All that being said, the email is still unopened. The weekend is coming up; I will take a quiet moment and open it then.

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