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.

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