Flip the Switch: Making the Most of Student Feedback Forms

Johanna Inman, Assistant Director, TLC

“Johanna is really nice.”

“I hated the readings.”

“I learned a lot.”

“Some discussions were pointless.”

“I enjoyed this class.”

These are typical comments I used to get on student feedback forms. Unfortunately, these aren’t very helpful. They are vague and lack the answer to that ever-elusive question: why?

When I began my teaching career as an adjunct instructor, I cared a lot about student evaluations mostly as a means to job security. Over the years, I came to value my students’ opinions as a way to improve my teaching and my courses for future students. However, as I’m sure many of you have experienced, it was rare that I actually received a thoughtful, constructive, and useful comment.

Now as Assistant Director of the Teaching and Learning Center, I often hear faculty raise similar concerns I’ve had about student evaluations. Of particular concern is how student evaluations are used for personnel decisions. In addition, faculty point out that students aren’t trained to evaluate teaching or that they evaluate factors outside of an instructor’s control. Sometimes I hear faculty repeat common misconceptions about student evaluations such as, it’s only the angry students that complete SFFs, or it’s all just a popularity contest anyway. And then there are comments like I can’t bear to read my evals anymore, students are just plain mean. It also doesn’t prompt a lot of faith in student feedback when recent research uncovered that evaluations can be influenced by students’ hidden biases.  

So, do student feedback forms have any real value for faculty? Absolutely!

In Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Stephen Brookfield suggests that reflective teaching includes seeing our teaching through multiple lenses or perspectives, one of which is our students’. Student feedback forms give us a window into this lens and they allow students to have a voice in forming and improving learning experiences. That said, in order to get the most from our students’ perspective, we need to improve both the quality of feedback we receive from them, and the way in which we respond to it.

Here are strategies to help students do a better job providing constructive feedback, as well as ways we can better receive student feedback in order to improve ourselves and our courses.

Teach students how to provide effective feedback

Preparing students to be more effective and objective evaluators of teaching helps improve the quality of feedback that they provide. First, let students know that you read their student feedback forms and take them seriously. Encourage students to include specific and constructive feedback such as aspects of the course and/or instruction that helped them learn. Overall, make sure students understand ways that you plan to use their feedback to improve the course for future students.

Consider implementing the following strategies:

  1. Provide students with examples of useful feedback. Students may not know what is helpful and what is not. Give students examples of targeted comments that you have found helpful in the past. Before they complete SFFs, remind them to be specific, give supporting examples, and most importantly explain why they feel the way they do.
  2. Explain to students exactly how you plan to use their feedback. Share examples of what you have changed previously as a result of student feedback. Are you already thinking about making a change in the future? Ask them to weigh-in. Don’t forget, you may also want to let them know what elements of the course you can and cannot change.
  3. Use strategies to improve your student response rates. Add a link to the e-sffs in your course’s Blackboard site. Alert students when evaluations are first available and send them a reminder when the deadline is close. Let them know what percentage of students have already completed them and share your goal for a higher response rate. If you haven’t had success with these strategies, reserve some in-class time for students to complete evaluations on their mobile devices, or better yet reserve some time in a computer lab.
  4. Implement a mid-semester evaluation earlier in the semester. Set up an online survey using Blackboard or Google Forms and ask students to complete it around week 5 or 6.  This strategy gives you an opportunity to make course adjustments mid-stream.  Students will also learn that you value their input and get practice providing constructive feedback. If you ask the right questions, it’s also an opportunity for students to reflect on their own performance in the course, not just yours.

Reflect on students’ feedback objectively

If you care at all about your teaching, this is not an easy task. However, the most effective way to use evaluations to improve our teaching is to remove defensive or visceral reactions to student feedback. Although it seems like an impossible exercise, here are some strategies that may help:

  1. Give it some time. You may not want to wait too long after the course is over to review student feedback, but perhaps at least a few days. When you’ve had a chance to take a deep breath and feel ready to review student evaluations, make sure to give yourself enough time for a thorough review. Read through all of the evaluations once, then go back a second time in order to better digest and analyze the information.
  2. Track feedback quantitatively. How many students are commenting about the lectures?  How many about the discussions? How many are positive? Negative? Often faculty get stuck on that one hurtful comment and forget that there were many other positive remarks. At the same time, if you see a common theme emerging from students it is clearly an area that should be addressed.
  3. Read evaluations as if they were not yours. This is a great strategy if you tend to take student feedback personally or get defensive. Ask yourself: What if this feedback was about a colleague? Then, what advice would you give them? How would your response be different?
  4. Don’t panic; get support! All instructors receive negative feedback at some point in their careers, including the very best! Schedule an appointment at the Teaching and Learning Center for a consultation to help you interpret your evaluations. TLC consultants can help you make meaning of student feedback and provide an objective point of view. Research suggests that instructors who discuss their evaluations with a colleague are more likely to have improved evaluations than others who do not discuss them.
  5. Reflect and make at least one improvement. Once you have reflected on your student feedback, think strategically about some changes you can make to your course or to your teaching based on the feedback you’ve received. Don’t try to change everything at once and definitely don’t change what isn’t broken. But make a commitment to improve something. Then, make a plan for that change.

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

Are there specific strategies you use to make student feedback forms more effective? Let us know!

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