Talking Teaching

September 14, 2010

how do you give feedback on feedback?

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!


  1. I just got a survey back for one of my tutorial/workshop groups. The course has 10, 2 hour fairly full-on workshops with each group with a mixture of student presentations, me presenting information and students doing activities. The survey was multichoice with a set question list and a space for comments which they didn’t make much use of. There was also the median mark for each question in the department and across all faculties for each question which they specifically point out “may be useful if preparing a promotion application”.
    I find it harder with uni kids, who you see a lot less of, to convince them I really want their feedback or they can’t be bothered or they are not sure what to say- I’m not sure which. I try to discuss ideas when they are doing course evaluations (not the evalutions of me where I am not allowed to be in the room) – some of them can say “the lectures were just boring, I don’t know how they could be better” and “the lectures in xyz101 are great” in one breath and not see the connection. So I expect educating them on how to give good feedback would be beneficial. Unfortunately the system is changing from one where instead of optional surveys with confidential results complied and provided to you to do as you see fit, they are going to chuck them in as part of staff evaluations and I assume use the results for promotions etc directly (creating exactly one of the problems you discuss).
    With high school classes I usually managed to convince them by part way through the year that I value their feedback – I tried to get feedback at the end of every unit. I suppose the combination of repeatedly asking them for feedback and hopefully seeming to make use of it some of the time eventually convinced the kids to sometimes provide useful comments. I also found being able to tailor the survey to the group and what I was specifically trying to work on in that unit was really useful.
    Making use of the Blackboard/Moodle system sounds like a good idea – but probably would result in less feedback than hard copy unless they were given a specific time to do it with computer in front of them. We seem to have massive email overload here and I know lots of undergrads and postgrads who barely read half their email let alone respond to requests to complete surveys.
    I’ll stop there for now but I finally thought I should make a comment as I really enjoy reading this blog and using the ideas to help me be a more reflective and hopefully better teacher(I found it while teaching high school and I’m now back doing my PhD but squeezing in some teaching because I enjoy it). I’d be really interested to hear what other people come up with too so comment away…

    Comment by victoriathinking — September 19, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    • Hey, really glad to hear that you’re enjoying the blog & finding it helpful!

      I agree – using e-appraisals only, via Blackboard or Moodle or surveymonkey etc, would almost certainly reduce the amount of student feedback that we’d get. I remember hearing somewhere (so this is just anecdotal, but you get the idea) that feedback rates on electronic surveys can average out at around 20%, which isn’t really enough to be useful. For our first-year Bio papers we make sure there’s time for the kids to complete a paper form during the last lab class of the semester, which makes sure that we catch most of them.

      The problem with having students appraise a paper & its teaching at the end of a semester is: how do you then let the class know that you’ve a) read their comments & b) taken them on board? And you absolutely have to do this, otherwise they really do get ‘survey apathy’. I’ve taken to giving written feedback on their feedback on Moodle, but they might not all go back & visit the class page after the semester ends. If it’s an A semester paper, most of them also take our B semester bio paper, so I put the info on that Moodle page, but for B semester classes I’m seriously considering sending my comments out as an e-mail through the class list…

      And if you use the ‘standard’ appraisal forms earlier in the semester, yes you can give feedback to the class before the end of the semester, but if it’s a team-taught paper then the person(s) teaching at the end of the lecture series may not get student feedback on their teaching at all :(

      Which leads us on to a different-but-related topic: are formal, end-of-paper appraisals the best or only way to go? Personally I don’t think so; I’m all for a mix of methods, many of them informal & formative. Something for another post, perhaps?

      Comment by alison — September 22, 2010 @ 10:50 am

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