Ever wonder what you students think of your class? Think students might be able to help improve your teaching? Professors all too often assume that their novice students are not sufficiently sophisticated to help a professor improve their teaching. This is why so many of us abhor and downplay the value of those hastily completed, end-of-term course evaluations students are repeatedly required to complete. But what if there was a way to get meaningful and actionable feedback from your students that could be useful? I submit that there are several strategies available to the courageous professor to make student-informed teaching improvements.
As most professors are relatively autonomous in their teaching in that they are rarely supervised by their peers or administrators, professors are not used to getting a tremendous amount of feedback about their teaching. As a result, there is a wide spectrum of faculty viewpoints about teaching improvement. Some professors are overly risk-adverse, and do not want to have their teaching weaknesses revealed and highlighted to themselves, or anyone else. These types of professors often believe that a don’t-ask & don’t-tell policy means that if one doesn’t speak of teaching improvements, then there is nothing to improve upon.
Other professors really do want to provide the best possible learning experiences for their students, but do not have a good way to go about doing this. These professors go out of their way to solicit critical student feedback, and even more critical feedback from other professors. Some universities even have an official Center for Teaching & Learning that will provide formal observation services to professors to help them improve their teaching.
Where ever you are on that continuum of soliciting student feedback on your teaching, below are some time-honored ideas that might help you get better data on which to make instructional decisions.
Level 0: End-of-Course Surprise! Some professors never consider the student learning experience during the course and patiently wait – and blindly hope – to receive positive evaluations from the End-of-Course Student Evaluation forms. The relative value of these evaluations has been debated ad nauseam elsewhere, but one thing is for sure, this is the least actionable student feedback on teaching because it happens at the end of a course with students who are likely not deeply invested in providing useful evaluations. This represents the lowest level of interest in getting student feedback.
Level 1: How is your attendance? One way to infer how valuable students find your class is to stealthily monitor student attendance. Particularly in large classes, my experience is that professors vastly overestimate actual student attendance rates. Students vote with their feet, and if they can acquire sufficient information to earn a decent grade in your class in ways other than regular class attendance, you might be missing an opportunity to improve the quantity and quality of learning going on during class time. But, in order to see it, you actually have to measure student attendance, which most large enrollment class professors rarely do.
Level 2: Require an Exit Ticket. Professors who want to monitor students’ understanding have long used the strategy of asking students to complete a quick survey at the end of class. These exit-surveys go by many different names: minute paper, muddiest point essay, and exit ticket, are just a few of the names used to describe them. The overarching idea is to occasionally ask students to anonymously answer three questions on a sheet of paper and drop off the paper in a box as they exit the classroom.
- What aspect of this class working is working best and should be maintained?
- What aspects of this class should be changed to improve your ability to learn? And
- Is there anything else that the professor needs to know about this class?
In order for this to work, one can’t require Exit Tickets too often, lest the advantages of them suffer from habitation. If used too frequently, students find them tiring and don’t take them seriously enough. I use exit tickets about twice a month: one time a month about how it is going for a single, specific learning concept I’m trying to teach in the form of a “muddiest point” paper, and one time each month for getting overarching teaching feedback. And, as every master teacher will tell you, be sure you report back to students what you learned from their Exit Ticket and what you are going to do about it, if possible.
Level 3: What’s in the Suggestions Box? A long-standing feedback system for many businesses is a simple Suggestions Box for people to drop off ideas for improvement and, occasionally, an opportunity to praise a particular employee. Today, this can be done quickly, and anonymously, using any of a number of free online survey tools, such as Survey Monkey. I often set up an online survey with a simple text box for students to provide suggestions and feedback, and give students the URL web address (you can steal mine at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/slatersuggestionbox). I do find that I periodically have to remind them that it is there or I get far fewer comments than I would like: Unlike the ominous and reminding wooden suggestion box by the exit, students can forget that an electronic pathway is there.
Level 4: Appoint Your Class Leadership Team! For professors who really want to find more ways to intellectually and socially connect with their students, some professors have found soliciting volunteers for a Class Leadership Team, CLT. A CLT is a panel of 6 students who are known to the rest of the class who serve as communication collection points. Students are told that these CLT students are their communication conduit to the professor, and that problems with the way the class are going should be shared with these CLT members. These CLT students can also monitor a physical or online Suggestions Box, and even provide a professor with interpretations of previous semester’s end-of-course evaluation data. Because these CLT students are students, they have tremendous insight into the classroom learning environment. To celebrate and honor the contributions of CLT members, I recommend taking them all out for coffee or lunch every three weeks or so. It costs a few dollars, but the insight and good-intentions are totally worth it. And, making new personal connections with students might mean that your department ends up with a few more declared majors than before.
One more thing should be said about soliciting student feedback, suggestion some degree of caution and perspective. Practice shows that you are always going to get more negative comments than positive comments. This is not a strategy to make you feel better about your teaching; instead, this is all about collecting more data so you can make informed decisions. There is no requirement that you act on or respond to every piece of evaluation data. As a general rule, I have to hear something 5 or 6 times before I take it seriously, because some people just find value in criticizing others, even when there is little basis for it. However, if you never ask, you might never find some easy to fix problems in your class or about your teaching style that can be improved before those end-of-course evaluation forms get delivered to your students. If you have an attitude of constantly trying to improve student learning, that will indeed show up positively on your evaluations.
Tim Slater, University of Wyoming, Tim@CAPERteam.com
Suggested Citation: Slater, T. F. (2016, September). Strategies to get feedback from students about your teaching. Society of College Science Teachers Blog, 2(2), http://www.scst.org/blog