A group of us met today to discuss the tricky question of just how to give feedback to students on the feedback that they give to us. More specifically, on the feedback that we ask them to provide on how they perceive the quality of the papers they’re enrolled in & the teaching in those papers.
Now, there’s a real tension between the various purposes to which these appraisal results can be put. In most institutions there’s probably a demand for numbers: nice ‘hard’ data that allow managers to see whether they’re meeting various benchmarks. (I wrote ‘hard’ in quote-marks because the data may not be all that ‘hard’ in reality; after all, these surveys are eliciting subjective comments on papers and teaching that may be subject to influence by a whole range of different factors.)
Teaching staff, on the other hand, have an understandable desire to get high ‘marks’ for things like promotion applications & personal goal-setting interviews. This may lead to reluctance to take risks, to change things about their teaching (even if there’s data in the literature suggesting that such changes might be beneficial), because if their students are resistant to such change then that’ll show up in the course appraisals. And then it could be bye-bye promotion. And it’s true – taking risks is uncomfortable; it takes you outside your comfort zone; and I think you probably have to be confident in your own abilities, & also confident in your rapport with the class, to do this.
And of course, appraisals can and should be used for the continuous enhancement of teaching. For this to happen, though, teaching staff need to read more than just the numbers on the usual Likert-style questions – if there are open-ended questions as well, these are likely to be rather more informative. But staff may need a bit of help interpreting them. Equally, students may need a bit of education as well – constructive criticism is far more valuable than destructive personal comments. (And staff may need support there too. It’s easy to become focused on the occasional harsh personal comment, & to lose sight of the fact that maybe only 1-2 are like this while the great majority of students report a good level of satisfaction with what’s going on in the classrom.)
But to get useful, reliable information, we’ve got to keep students engaged with the whole process. And that’s what we were tossing around today – just how do you do this? Typically appraisals are done towards the end of a paper, so that by the time the results have been analysed, that semester’s over & you may not see the students again. But if you don’t give them an indication that you value what they’ve told you, that you’ve heard it & will use it to inform your teaching, they’ll rather quickly become very cynical about the whole process. I’m always really upfront about this ahead of the appraisal’s being done: I say something along the lines of how I really value their feedback as it gives me an indication of how I can improve both my papers and my teaching. But how do you let the class know that you have a) read their comments & b) intend to do something about it. How do you give feedback on their feedback?
Seriously – what do you think? What works for you & your students? Does your institution mandate this sort of feedback on feedback, or is it voluntary? How do we reach the students: a session in lecture time/written comments on Moodle the following semester/information in the study guide for the next iteration of that paper/ an e-mail giving your comments, sent out to all members of last semester’s class? And – how do we move on from the formal, ‘official’ appraisals alone to include other forms of feedback on teaching and learning?
So many questions – hopefully you, our readers, will be willing to share your solutions!