Using Student Feedback for Course Improvement

In order to get to know one’s students and to assess his or her own teaching style effectiveness, an instructor must be open to feedback.

I don’t think this feedback should only come from what are commonly referred to as “student evaluations.” First of all, students have opinions, but they are not professional educators and are therefore not in a position to “evaluate” professional instructors. Only other professionals can do that. Far too many schools use student “evaluations” to judge instructors; in some cases, for adjunct faculty, for example, this is the only measure of teaching effectiveness. Professionals deserve better than that. This is the wrong approach to improving classroom effectiveness. First, we need to call these surveys written by students by a different name- words matter. I prefer ‘student ratings’ or ‘student opinion’ surveys. Second, students are not educators and may not understand why things are being taught or approached in a certain way. Finally, we need to be aware that sometimes, students who are annoyed about being held to high standards will take this out on a perfectly good instructor. Student opinions DO matter, and there are some poor instructors out there, but these should be considered in a holistic manner, along with professional evaluations of classroom performance and other metrics.

I propose that seeking feedback for oneself is the most powerful way for an instructor to improve his or her classroom effectiveness.

Seek feedback regularly
One way to create an open learning environment and let students know they are valued is by creating opportunities for them to give regular feedback, both openly and anonymously. This allows students to convey what they are thinking and feeling and to share issues or questions. There are several techniques an instructor can use:

Course introduction assessment surveys.
Ask students to fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of a course. The instructor can ask students to comment on their comfort level with or prior knowledge of the material, why they are taking the class, etc. One question that has elicited the most interesting responses is: “What do I need to know about you to help you be successful in this course?” This can also be one place where the instructor introduces the idea of learning styles, by asking students to reflect upon their own learning or thinking style preference. Simply by asking for feedback, an open and welcoming dynamic is established.

Daily or weekly feedback cards.
Ask students to write down what they do not understand or need help with on index cards, anonymously. Because some students are uncomfortable asking questions in class or admitting that they do not understand, this written format allows them to ask for clarification or share an insight or a concern with the instructor in a candid manner. The instructor can address the issues in the next class.

Take-aways.
Ask students what they are taking away from a particular class or unit of study. This is best accomplished by quickly going around the room at the end of a class, allowing the instructor to clarify points as necessary, and to assess the effectiveness of the lesson. Because this activity doesn’t require much self-disclosure it can be done verbally.

Mid-term course assessment surveys.
This slightly more formal method of seeking feedback is a written anonymous survey where students are asked about their perceived grasp of the subject matter so far, as well as being given the opportunity to give feedback regarding classroom climate issues or any other concerns they may have. Because this is done halfway through the semester, (or sooner if the instructor deems it necessary) there is still ample course time to address any issues that arise, rather than have instructors receive this information after the end of the course when it is too late to address.

By collecting and responding to student feedback the instructor demonstrates a genuine interest, and can address concerns and clarify issues. Each of these techniques gives the instructor more material for his or her own critical reflection as a teacher, particularly in getting to know students as individuals and transcending boundaries with them. Students likewise have an opportunity to self-reflect on their own learning process while at the same time seeing critical reflection being modeled by the instructor.

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