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Feedback from Students

The evaluation process not only includes evaluation of the student learning but also evaluation of instructor teaching. My institution has a form that is given towards the end of the course called “Student Report on Teaching” (SRT). SRTs are given to students during the probationary period and then periodically after that. I haven’t seen an SRT since my probationary period over a decade ago. The infrequency of evaluation on the institutional level has left me interested in doing my own SRT.

My experience with the SRTs during my probationary period has left me with some concerns which suggests changes to the current form. My major concern involves what to ask on the SRT in order to gain useful feedback. Our institutional questions include questions like “Were tests and assignments graded and returned promptly”, which lead me to stay up all night grading exams so that I could return them during the next lecture. I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question! How could I possibly get exam results back any quicker than the very next class which was sometimes less than 24 hours after they wrote the test? Another question asks about whether course objectives were clear. I included the course objectives in the course outline and at the beginning of each lecture. I specifically asked at the end of the lecture if the course objectives were clear. Again, I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question on the SRT. If the course objectives were not clear, why didn’t students speak up during the course? I did not get the results until after the course was over and without student names so I could not follow-up on the concerns raised by the SRT. What is the point of doing evaluations if the information is untimely and of such poor quality, improvements cannot be made?

I found unsolicited student evaluations on a site called “Rate My Professor”.  While it was nice to receive positive feedback in such a public place, I found the negative feedback frustrating. Students leaving negative feedback often had the course number wrong which made it hard to take their comments about the course seriously. The students would also express dissatisfaction with my personal attributes without explanation as to why they felt I was rude or mean or evil or whatever else they didn’t like about me. One student even accused me of being a racist which I consider to be quite a serious charge and absolutely something I do not want to be. However, the student never said anything to me or filed a formal complaint. I have no idea what I did to deserve such a comment, and thus, I have no idea how to rectify the situation or even verify if a situation actually exists to rectify.

Despite this bad taste in my mouth, I still believe there is a need to gather student feedback. Thus I was interested in the Faculty Focus newsletter in my email this morning. In her article, “How to Get Better Feedback from Students“, Maryellen Weimer offers some tips:

  • Ask questions “about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn” rather than what students liked/disliked about the course and/or instructor.
  • Ask these questions immediately after the activity was experienced by the student during the course rather than a global survey at the end of the course when it is too late to do anything.
  • Teach students how to give constructive feedback. This instruction would include what is relevant and appropriate feedback by explaining what can be changed and what can’t as well as modeling the desired behaviour when giving feedback to students.
  • Show students that you take their feedback seriously by discussing the feedback with them. If feedback cannot be incorporated, explain why and invite other solutions to identified problems. I would even go farther and suggest not asking for feedback on anything you have no desire to change.

The most difficult tip to incorporate is asking the right questions and this needs to be explored further in future blog posts. I have several tabs open, so stay tuned.

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Filed under Classroom Management, Learning Environments

No, that’s Wrong!

These are the words of own of my worst nightmares. A professor asks a question. I give a thoughtful answer. The feedback on the answer is negative. The fear of being wrong is both motivational and paralyzing. The motivation is to think before I speak. Double-check my answers and ask myself, “how do I know I’m right?”. The paralyzing part is that sometimes, I can’t know if I’m right or not so I don’t want to answer at all.

It is easy to find lots of quotes expressing the wisdom of learning from our mistakes. We know this, but it still stings when we discover we aren’t as brilliant as we thought we were.

In this TEDtalk, Diana Laufenberg says,

The main point is that, if we continue to look at education as if it’s about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice and embracing failure, we’re missing the mark. And everything that everybody is talking about today isn’t possible if we keep having an educational system that does not value these qualities, because we won’t get there with a standardized test, and we won’t get there with a culture of one right answer. We know how to do this better, and it’s time to do better.

During her talk, Laufenberg describes methods of authentic learning where learning from mistakes is an important part of the process. If we are doing it right, learning involves making mistakes. As instructors, we may use questioning as a way to assess how much our students have learned course material. It feels great when students answer correctly, but what about when the answer is incorrect? In their chapter on Questions and Questioning Technique, Amin and Eng describe this dilemma,

Teachers are responsible for correcting mistakes and guiding the students in the proper direction. These are delicate moments in teacher-student interactions and deserve to be dealt with carefully. The teacher’s dilemmas in these situations vary from inclination to favor discovery learning in the form of continuing guided questioning to adopting a more humane stance by maintaining silence or responding in a neutral manner. With careful probing and guiding questions it may be possible to elicit the correct response, but there are risks of potential embarrassment and eventual damage to the teacher-student relationship. Adopting a more humane approach, although more compassionate and sympathetic, is unlikely to correct the students’ wrong responses and is pedagogically inadequate.

The authors go on to describe 4 approaches to minimize student embarrassment:

  • Providing ‘opportunity space’ for revisions by not responding immediately and thus allowing the student time to come up with another answer
  • Asking subsequent questions in a manner that contain clues to the first question leading the student to the correct answer
  •  Re-framing the questions so that the wrong answers become correct, and
  • Treating the wrong answer as plausible but in need of further elaboration and consideration

Of these suggestions, the first one is most difficult for me. I want to help a struggling student, but a better approach is silence instead of jumping in with a “correct” answer. There is value in learning from our mistakes and we should allow the students the opportunity to learn. Our emphasis on learning from mistakes will help take away any negative feelings associated with making mistakes.

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