May 22, 2013
How to Get Better Feedback from Students
It’s that time of the year when end-of-course ratings and student comments are collected. When the feedback arrives, the quality often disappoints—and if the feedback is collected online, fewer students even bother to respond. Most of the comments are dashed off half thoughts, difficult to decipher. Complaints aren’t accompanied with constructive suggestions. Yes, some do say really nice things, but others sound off with pretty awful comments. However, I don’t think students are entirely at fault here.
There are many reasons why student feedback is not particularly helpful, but there are things we can do to make it better. Here are a few suggestions on how to extract more value from course evaluations:
We don’t learn a lot from student feedback when we don’t ask good questions. At the top of my list of bad questions I’d put the ever-popular “What did you like most/least about the course/instructor” kind of questions. I wish I could make those questions illegal. Since when did the goal of education become providing learners with what they like? I know teachers can’t remove these questions from institutionally mandated forms. We can object, though, and we can ask students better questions on our own. If teachers want to make changes that improve teaching and learning, we need to ask about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn.
We don’t learn as much as could when we ask after it’s too late to make a difference. For me that means the end of the course when students are busy and stressed. They’ve got more important things on their minds. And at many institutions they are asked to evaluate every course every semester, which is not what the research recommends. Then there’s the reality that the feedback they provide isn’t going to benefit them—the course is over. The feedback that helps teachers make good choices about what and how to change doesn’t emerge from those overall, global assessments of how the course compares with all other courses on the planet. It’s found in responses to smaller segments of instruction, or course events like assignments or group activities, and it’s solicited right after the fact while students clearly remember what happened and the teacher has time to implement alterations.
We compromise the learning potential of student feedback when we don’t teach the principles of constructive feedback. The benefits of doing so go in both directions. Teachers get feedback that is more helpful than hurtful and students start developing a skill they can use in virtually every profession. Students deliver more constructive feedback when they understand what teachers do and don’t have the power to change, and what is and isn’t relevant to learning. Most of the time we don’t decide when the class meets or who enrolls in it. Moreover, our selection of ties or the types of earrings we wear don’t merit commentary in feedback that addresses learning experiences. Constructive feedback doesn’t preclude students from identifying things about the course and instruction that compromised their efforts to learn. It’s about how those comments are delivered. The golden rule of feedback is that teachers and students should give each other feedback in the form they’d like to have feedback given unto them.
We don’t learn much from student feedback when they don’t take the process seriously. And the reason students don’t take the process seriously is because they don’t think we do. They complain about some teachers, assignments, and courses year after year and nothing changes. Teachers can convince students that their feedback does matter by soliciting it and then talking about it during the course. Responding to student suggestions does not obligate the teacher to do whatever students recommend. If a course activity or assignment is essential to achieving certain learning outcomes, then removing it would be irresponsible. Teachers can help students understand by explaining the educational rationale behind the decision to continue the activity or assignment, and then by exploring what could be done that might help them do better. If a teacher makes a change that students recommend, they often feel vested in making the change successful.
It’s true that students don’t always provide good, helpful feedback, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t. It’s up to faculty to solicit and respond to their feedback in ways that make it a learning experience for both parties.