Talking Teaching

March 14, 2012

how do you give feedback to university teachers

How do you give feedback to university teachers? – this was the search ‘topic’ used by one visitor to Talking Teaching. It struck a chord with me as I’m part of a small group of people discussing that very question, so I thought it might be a good topic for a blog. Not least because actually sitting down & writing about it should help to focus my own thoughts on the issue.

My institution expects teaching staff to carry out regular appraisals of their papers & their teaching in those papers.While there are a number of ways to do this, in practice most people use the ‘standard’ form: a set of Likert-scale questions on both paper & teachers that are common to all appraisals; a set of open-response questions (identify 3 things about this paper/teacher that should be changed/kept the same); &, if the lecturer chooses, some other questions as well. (Last year I included a set about student’s perceptions of Panopto, for a research project that I’m running with a couple of colleagues.) So there’s potentially quite a bit of information available there.

It’s what happens to this information, of course, that matters. Here, the current state of play sees lecturers receive a summary of the Likert question responses, plus any demographic information, fairly soon after the semester ends. Once the grades for the semester are finalised, we’re then sent the original survey forms, so we can then read the open-ended material as well. Both lots of information are potentially extremely useful if you’re wanting to improve paper delivery & your own teaching. The thing is – does everyone actually read it? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not: that the sheaf of paper may sometimes simply be flicked through (at best) before relegation to the paper-recycling device commonly known as a rubbish tin. When this happens, both students & teacher miss out. The students have spent time engaging with the questionnaire & do have a right to expect that their words will be read & (hopefully) responded to. And the lecturer may have missed out on suggestions that might allow them to enhance their paper’s delivery. And of course, there’s no closing of the feedback loop – letting the class know that you’ve read their comments & suggestions, & explaining how & why (or why not) you’re intending to respond to them. This in turn can see students becoming quite disillusioned with the whole process.

One of the options we’ve discussed, as a means of improving this part of the system, is whether to provide teaching staff with a summary of the open-ended questions as well, perhaps with a commentary alongside: “X% of the class felt that…. This suggests that… – have you considered the following.. ?” This, of course, would constitute a lot of extra work for our Teaching Development staff!

And there’s also the question of whether this is the best, or the only, way of getting feedback on one’s teaching.What about on-going formative feedback during the semester, using techniques like one-minute papers or ‘muddy questions’ (in which students highlight the points in a lecture that most puzzled or confused them)? Or the use of feedback surveys in learning management tools like Moodle? There’s also the issue of perceived legitimacy – I’ve heard it said that students don’t know enough about a given subject to give any meaningful comment. (While this is likely true about the content it’s certainly not the case for the methods – students do have a fairly good idea of the teaching styles & tools that work best to enhance their learning.) Would feedback be better coming from peers rather than students? How comfortable would lecturers be with having a colleague sitting in on their classes & providing constructive comments afterwards?

I seem to be posing more questions than I’ve answered! Please feel free to weigh in with your suggestions :-)


  1. We are currently discussing this in my school too. Our system is a bit different than yours, in that the personnel committee reads every number circled and every word written, and every so often (frequency depending on rank) we have to write detailed evaluations of ourselves and discuss all the comments students leave on our course evaluations. What I don’t like about our system is the same though — I don’t like how our evals are used either! I firmly believe that students’ critiques need to be interpreted in light of the difficulty, complexity, and “curb-appeal” of the class, but this is, of course difficult to do outside of your own discipline. Instead, the system I am under takes (nearly) all comments at face value. But I teach a variety of topics and my evals are sometimes wildly different “Cognitive Science” doesn’t have curb-appeal at my university and the evals are often more negative than “Child Development” which of course has oodles of appeal. But I don’t do anything remarkably different in these classes (aside from one thing, but that’s beside the point here). When I suggest that one could also interpret, despite the difference in numbers, the Cog Sci evals as being better because I actually got the students to both understand and appreciate the material despite their initial motivation and interest level, I get raised eyebrows by some (i.e., they think I am whining). But I am here to say that I work three times as hard at earning those moderate marks in Cog Sci as I do at earning the positive marks in Child Dev (not that I slack in the other class, but I don’t have to be a cheerleader there). Anyway, I am going on and on, but what we are talking about doing is revising the ratings to a narrative only system where students are asked to comment on what they’ve learned, and to do somewhat regular peer observations. The folks who are discussing this right now are not of a like mind about the pros and cons of each system though. I myself want to go with the new route.

    Comment by cognitioneducation — March 14, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    • Asking the students to comment on what they’ve learned would be an interesting approach. Would you do it ‘open-ended’ (ie this semester these are the things I’ve learned), or would you also give them some indication of ‘milestones’ (things you’d like them to have learned, & an estimation of whether they think they have or not)? Regular peer observations – definitely get a ‘yes’ from me. I think we can learn a lot from each other – the observer can gain just as much as the observee :-) I suspect that this approach is often resisted because people tend to feel threatened by having another academic in their classroom, so it’s something that does need to be approached carefully. The observers need training in advance on what they should be doing, how to give feedback etc. And those being observed should be able to say, this particular aspect of my teaching/classroom dynamics/other activities is what I’d really like you to help me with this week.

      Comment by alison — March 14, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

  2. Our school gives the students a survey with the standard Likert questions and some open response questions,which is a pretty standard method at all the schools I’ve been to. The problem I see with it is that the form assumes the person being evaluated is responsible for the entire course by themselves. While this may be true in some circumstances, it is far from the norm at the medical school at which I teach. The students don’t know that the course director is the one responsible for course content and oftentimes the rest of the faculty (which can be as many as two dozen for one course) have little say in many aspects of the course. As a result, most faculty are graded on things they have no control over. At any rate, the scores are tallied for the Likert questions and each faculty is given an average score. The open response comments are collated and given to the faculty member, but are otherwise paid no attention to, not even being read by the course director as they are considered solely for the faculty member’s benefit. As far as the school is concerned, the only thing that matters is the average score. Unfortunately, there is a strong correlation between the score given and the rigor required by the instructor, the higher the bar is set, the lower their score. Because the P&T committees pay attention to these scores and teaching awards are given primarily on the basis of these scores, instructors have a vested interest in watering down the courses to get higher scores. the emphasis is not on what methods provide the best education, but on what the students like best (and what they like best is straight lecture with minimal content, they are unused to interactivity in the classroom and are often reluctant to do so and sometimes hostile to the idea of having to do more than sit there while the professor talks, this I think would change though if they wer taught better from the beginning so they got used to it immediately). This of course runs counter to the other priority of getting as many students as possible to pass the national exams.

    It is not an optimal system. I don’t think the evaluations are properly aligned with the intent and goals of the faculty and administration. Nevertheless, it is fast and more time to do anything else is really unlikely. I don’t know what the answer is though, I don’t have a better system in mind that does what we need better and is feasible to implement.

    Comment by jdmimic — March 16, 2012 @ 2:47 am

    • I think our current system is a bit better than this – while a lot of our papers are team-taught, generally each person in the team is responsible for the content that they are delivering (rather than delivering someone else’s material) & we have a meeting after each semester to discuss how it’s gone & identify areas that could be improved.

      It is certainly possible to ‘game’ the system & in fact I’ve often come across the perception that if you get good teaching appraisals you must be being soft/diluting content etc. People can also avoid changing things in case that gets poor appraisals as well. (I’ve also heard of people removing questions that they think they might get a bad rating for.) Personally I don’t believe it has to be that way. I find that if I explain to the class why I’m doing something, & make it clear that changes in my techniques are research-based & aimed at improving things for them, then they’re perfectly OK with it. (Changes =/= dilution or softening, lol.) But I do realise that I’m in a fairly privileged position compared to the one you describe.

      Comment by alison — March 16, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  3. I keep trying not to think about your spate of recent posts because I have too much of my own to think about, but this post won’t leave me. It happened to me as a student and I have had past students get back in touch with me saying it has happened to them: something thought dumb or crazy or not at all worth class time turns out to be a key that later unlocks meaning. I mean “later” as in months or years. I mean “meaning” as in the subject or some other entirely. The problem is they cannot articulate what made something key and I cannot remember the circumstances well enough to identify it either.

    What I’m getting at is that assessment does not yet measure unripened readiness. Sometimes I think I am teaching for the next teacher’s benefit because the student won’t be ready for integrated learning until then.

    (I am only half-joking when answering student whining with “You’ll thank me later.”)

    Comment by complynn — March 29, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    • That’s a really good point; I’ve even had the occasional past student say something similar. You know, “you said ‘x’ & at the time it made no sense & now I see how it all fits together, & thank you!”

      Comment by alison — March 29, 2012 @ 4:59 pm

  4. I hope we all have stories like that. I think integration / learning is slower than a term at a time.

    Comment by complynn — March 29, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

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