Read for patterns, ideas, and humor
The Student Feedback Form can be a valuable source of information about your teaching and your courses. As often it can be a site of frustration, confusion, and irrelevant non sequiturs. How do you read your SFFs with an eye to learning about your teaching? We at the CAT would like to share a few approaches that can help you cut through the noise, find that helpful information, and even laugh off those cruder moments.
The SFF is an inherently subjective object: students typically fill them out with their own personal experiences of your course in mind. While that doesn’t invalidate their observations, it does mean handling them with care. In this context, it makes more sense to look for patterns, where multiple students signal a shared experience about your course. Most of us have experienced that one student who had a terrible time and lets you know about it in the SFF. That single student’s strong language says far less than two, ten, or twenty students arriving at the same conclusion.
So, read for patterns. Do multiple students comment on course organization, or how accessible you are? That probably means a majority of students found you and the course to be clear. This kind of reading is broad, not deep: you resist getting mired in a single comment and instead survey your responses and start picking out keywords or subjects that recur. Make a list of those subjects, and only then return for deeper reading. This approach ensures you maximize your time with material that obviously deserves attention (either for compliment or revision).
SFFs are not a statement of adequacy. We’ll repeat that so you can read it out loud to yourself and anybody nearby: SFFs are not a statement of adequacy. Research indicates that students sometimes respond to questions for a variety of reasons having little to do with your teaching ability, and of course, SFFs are not built to include evidence and citation. It is therefore best to enter them with an eye toward small ideas for improvement, rather than with your self worth on the line.
Do students share anything they wish they’d seen more of? Do they mention (and remember, look for those patterns) activities they liked? Are there any particularly kind and thoughtful comments that offer suggestions for changes to in-class activities or assignments? Treat these not as personal critiques, but as free advice for you to consider and (maybe, if it makes sense) adopt.
The internet has made us all familiar with the dangers of the “comment section,” and we have seen some crazy things in SFFs: professors accused of knowing nothing, ruining a major, and picking the wrong career. There are only two possible responses to such claims: believe them, or laugh them off. Comments like these prey on our innate insecurities, and almost always come as one-offs, not patterns. While they can hurt and be difficult to forget, keep in mind that they are almost always groundless and operate on an emotional, rather than curricular, level.
So, find a friend and laugh it off! Tell someone “they just have to hear this.” Have a party where you try to beat each other for the funniest, oddest, or worst comment out there. We promise that the moment you hear those statements hanging in the air, they’ll lose their power and you’ll find them easier to dismiss out of hand. If no one comes to mind, reach out to us -- we’d love to share a chuckle with you!
Remember that SFFs are just one perspective on your teaching. Many others exist including peer observation, your own reflections, more informal conversations with students, or asking a CAT staffer to come visit. SFFs are not comprehensive, and should be digested in concert with other evidence for a fuller picture of your ongoing development as a teacher. As always, the CAT is here to help: if you’d like us to help you decipher your SFFs, feel free to make an appointment and we’d be happy to read them with you.
Kyle Vitale, PhD, is Associate Director of Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.