April 3rd, 2013

Course Evaluations: Helping Students Reflect on Their Feedback

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I always hesitate to do posts on student ratings. Every teacher has opinions, a lot of which aren’t supported by the research. But this post is on a topic about which there is little disagreement. Students don’t take the process all that seriously, especially now that they complete rating forms online. Few take the time to provide teachers with quality feedback. They mark the rating boxes quickly and dash off a few poorly worded comments. Most of the time it’s not a process that benefits teachers or students, which is sad because it could be an experience with learning potential for both.

Yes, students can learn from activities that involve them in providing instructional feedback, especially if it’s focused on their learning experiences in class. Most students have little insight into themselves as learners. So, if the assessment activity gets them thinking about how they learn and what teaching policies, practices, and behavior expedite their efforts to learn, it can be a beneficial activity for them as well as for the teacher.

The trick is coming up with feedback activities that garner these benefits and I just found a great example. Professor La Lopa, who teaches hospitality and tourism management at Purdue University, has students in his 200-level Human Resource Management course write a reflective paper on quality teaching and its assessment. (I can hear some of you wondering about the appropriateness of the assignment. His article, referenced below, explains the context which more than justified it for me.) What’s most creative about the assignment are some of the prompts students respond to in the paper. Here’s a condensed and slightly edited version of some of them.

  • How would you describe your ideal professor? Include a description of the classroom setting (number of students, physical space, etc). Paint as clear a picture for me as possible so I can envision your ideal college professor and class.
  • Now describe the typical teacher you have actually experienced in your courses here. What is the typical classroom setting like?
  • If you could put one question on a course evaluation what would it be and why would you ask it?
  • If you were the president of your college or university, what method would you use to evaluate the [teaching] performance of college professors?

The article is worth reading for the quotes excerpted from the student papers alone. Their observations demonstrate just how well an assignment like this gets students thinking about good teaching, its assessment, and its relationship to learning.

There are lots of potential spin-offs from an activity framed around these questions. The most frequently mentioned characteristics of the “ideal” professor could be shared and discussed. Why these characteristics? Are these characteristics that support efforts to learn? How? Why? How about the teacher writing a short description of the “ideal” student followed by another short description of the “typical” student? I wonder if the one question teachers would add to the course evaluation would be anything like the question students would add. Maybe the best way to evaluate professors is by how well their students learn. Is that a good idea? Why? Why not?

There’s lots of research documenting that students don’t believe that their feedback is taken seriously by institutions or instructors, which in part explains the poor quality of the feedback they provide. And there’s lots of research documenting that if faculty talk with students about assessment feedback it improves end-of-course ratings. It’s a visible sign that teachers care and are willing to work with students, even if we don’t make all the changes they propose. Good feedback activities like the one described here have one final benefit: they can be learning experiences for students.

Please share the ways you collect, respond to, and use feedback from students. We’re especially interested in those ways that also encourage students to encounter themselves as learners.

Reference: La Lopa, J. (2011). Student reflection on quality teaching and how to assess it in higher education. Journal of Culinary Science & Technology, 9 (4), 282-292.