September 11th, 2008

Paradigm Shift of Student Feedback


I’m currently writing and thinking about ways to change faculty thinking about student evaluation. We need a whole new paradigm—one that gets teachers focused on improving student learning and pursues better teaching as a byproduct of that first endeavor. Teaching will still improve but the focus on learning changes some other important dynamics. It means that students are much more likely to become collaborators, allies in a shared endeavor.

When teachers use feedback to help students learn more and better, students have all sorts of reasons to care. If the teacher’s attempts are successful, students will be the prime beneficiaries. Given the current context for evaluation, it may be that teachers need to make that vested interest clear to students. That can be explicitly communicated but the point is more compellingly made with action. If students think sample test questions, online discussions of tough passages in the text, or evening office hours several nights before the exam would help and the teacher provides those, students quickly figure out how much this exchange of information can benefit them. They start to take the process seriously and that dramatically improves the quality of feedback they provide.

Students are also in a position to help faculty make it happen and being collaborators in the process encourages them to step up to the plate. I let students set the participation policy in my basic communication courses. Regularly they have a plank in that policy that the teacher will only call on students who volunteer, those who raise their hands. More than once, I’ve had a class in which I’ve asked a question, gotten no response, asked again, waited patiently, rephrased the question, written part of it on the board and still there are no hands. More than once someone in the class has come to my rescue, reminding the class of their responsibility. “We didn’t want her to call on us. She’s following the policy. But it’s our job to answer her questions. Somebody needs to take a stab at this one.”

When empowered to report on their learning experiences, when they realize teachers listen and take their comments seriously, students can help teachers make activities, assignments, labs, exams, all aspects of the course better. They have good ideas! They also have ideas that aren’t so good, but either way the teacher has collaborators and that’s as empowering as it is motivating. It makes soliciting feedback something teachers might want to do. It makes providing feedback something students want to take seriously. And that makes this a new paradigm worth pursuing.

—Maryellen Weimer