By Guest Writer: Beth White
The semester has ended. We’ve closed the book on another chapter and quietly breathed a sigh of relief. It’s over. Everything is graded and submitted successfully. It’s time to relax and maybe catch up on some reading. And, then, when we are finally able to settle a bit and reflect for a moment, it arrives. Just like the IRS in April, there it is, in our email. Taunting. Our “Student Assessment of Instruction System” (SAIS) feedback forms (Cue Dragnet music – Dum Da Dum Dum). What happens next is closely related to what happens when students open their grades. Some of us cautiously hunch over our computers and carefully open “The File.” Others of us open the file like ripping off a Band-Aid.
We get the usual mix of positive and negative feedback: the high, low, or just average scores, a few thoughtful comments, accolades from the class pet, and random attacks flung with the intent to get in one last insult. It often seems our class is reduced to little more than a middle school game of chance: “Do you like me? Check “Yes”, or “No.” And, contrary to the age old chant, words DO, at times, hurt. Those few negative comments can seem so much more powerful than the positive ones. So, what do we do with all of the information? Student feedback is an opportunity to evaluate our teaching. Feedback can be collected for many purposes—to give us helpful information towards improvement or to rate a performance. And, according to Webster, it can be:
1) helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc. 2) something (such as information or electricity) that is returned to a machine, system, or process, or, 3) :an annoying and unwanted sound caused by signals being returned to an electronic sound system.
It is productive to think of feedback as a helpful and iterative process. Some of us are good at focusing solely on the negative while ignoring the plethora of positive comments that came with it. The danger with this perspective is that those critical messages can be internalized, and set up a scenario for failure next semester. Conversely, focusing on the positive comments we tend to deem “helpful” may impair our ability to see the criticisms that are also intended to help us hone our teaching skills. We often hear the criticism as the “annoying, unwanted sound”. The natural tendency to dismiss the negative for self-preservation takes over and we may miss good information. Either dismissing or focusing on the negativity creates a scenario where everyone, especially the student, loses.
So, what would good feedback look like next semester?
Is there a constructive way to gather feedback and use it to improve our instruction and further student learning, not only at the end, but also throughout the semester?
What if, among your many New Year’s resolutions, you included formative feedback? SAIS represents summative feedback, that is, evaluative feedback that represents a summary of student impressions provided at or near the close of a course. Formative feedback is a way of monitoring student progress toward learning outcomes in an ongoing manner that used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. Start small.
This semester, gather feedback numerous times, in numerous ways. There are many ways to engage students in their own learning. Be specific about what you need from them. One example is to use a minute paper to ask them how a particular exercise did or did not help them achieve a learning objective. You can also have an open discussion in class or use an online feedback tool like Linoit to gather timely feedback. This may not be the norm and can feel out of place for both you and your students, especially the in-class discussion option. It would be easy to accept all of the positive comments (which you will get) and never inquire further about negative ones. You may have to begin that conversation yourself by making a simple statement like, “For those of you who were not helped by the assignment, how could I change it to make it more useful next time?” The wording of this question assumes that at least some of the students did not find the assignment useful. If no one responds, you might go further and say something like, “What about (example from the assignment)? I wasn’t sure that was (clear, helpful,) etc.” Once you have been through this process several times, the conversation will pick up and the ensuing exchanges will be productive and natural. It will just become your class’ way of being together. An added benefit is that students will perceive you as approachable. Students are more likely to reach out individually when they have had a class experience that encourages feedback. The benefit to you is getting the feedback in real time, which allows for any adjustments you would like to make to the instruction.
Gathering feedback is pointless if you do not use it. Put the feedback into practice. When we receive good feedback, we should use it. If Plan A is not working, something needs to change. If my students are not meeting the learning outcomes I have identified, we should do something different. This is not to say that we have to take all of the suggestions that students give and make huge adjustments to the course. However, there are things that students have requested through the years that I would never have thought of on my own. Those same ideas would never have gotten to me via the usual SAIS. Why? Because they were revealed through conversations, we had together. Sometimes, they were minor changes to assignments but other times, they were major revisions made to fit a specific group of learners. Some of them even required more work from students! However, they were created together as partners in learning. Try it, see what a difference it can make in your course!
Good feedback is a two-way street. Most of us were educated in environments where the feedback was from the professor to the student, in classic lecture style (Type I teaching format). However, when we engage students in the process in a true dialogue (Type II or III format), we involve them in their own learning as well as engage them in communication skills that they can use in many different environments. In our age of digital communication, it is difficult for some students to personally address potentially uncomfortable issues. Others are quick to criticize the instructor or the text/materials, when they are unsuccessful. This is a normal reaction referred to in Psychology as the Self-Serving Bias, the tendency to blame external circumstances for our shortcomings in order to protect our self-esteem. As instructors, we also make use of this cognitive bias when we read negative comments and conclude that they arise out of the fact that “Students don’t study”, “Students just want easy grades”, etc.
While blaming external circumstances or others may be comforting at the moment, it is not necessarily helpful in developing critical thinking and/or good communication skills between parties. A more productive choice is a true exchange of feedback where both parties exchange thoughts, examine their underlying assumptions and gain a bit more objective viewpoint. We are in a unique position to teach students how to respectfully present their viewpoint and perhaps learn some clarification, questioning and negotiation skills in the process. It helps them begin to “own” their own learning.
When we discuss with students, we teach them how to both take and give constructive criticism, tools they will need later in life. We get the added benefit of good feedback and can use it to improve student outcomes. As you look ahead to 2015, what feedback resolutions can you make to improve learning for you and your students?