Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
As you proceed through the semester, you likely have a good idea of how you feel things are going for you as the course instructor. Equally important is the question, "How is it going for your students?" An often overlooked and relatively easy method to identify how your students feel about the course and their learning is to ask them. Although feedback is typically obtained from students through end-of-the-course surveys, information received at that time is too late to put to use to help students in the course. Formative feedback may be obtained from your students at any time during the course. It can be a relatively structured approach, such as the Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (Hurney, 2014), or it can be a more informal approach using a few questions posed as a survey. The upside is that collecting feedback during the semester has been shown to improve learning for students in the course (Floden, 2016).
The frequency of feedback is up to each instructor, but keep in mind that if collected too often, students will likely provide less detailed feedback. If collected only once, it is difficult to determine if any adjustments made were beneficial. Many instructors first ask for feedback about four to six weeks into the semester. Getting feedback about one-third of the way into the semester allows for adjustments in time to then ask for feedback again at about two-thirds of the way through the semester. This second round of feedback can be a time to determine if the first adjustments to the course were helpful and also allows additional changes be made as needed. Alternatively feedback may be requested at midterms and then again about three weeks, before the end of the semester.
5 Benefits of Requesting and Receiving Feedback from Students
There are at least five significant benefits of requesting and receiving feedback from students.
1. Identify instructional approaches that best meet students’ preferences for learning.
First, it helps faculty identify instructional approaches that best meet students’ preferences for learning. Unless you received specific training in a variety of teaching strategies, you likely teach the way in which you best learned as a student. If you typically preferred a class discussion lecture over group work when you were a student, that is most likely the type of teaching you will employ. Feedback from students provides an overall feel as to whether your preferred strategy for teaching meets your students’ preferred way of learning. It may well be that a minor adjustment on a strategy you prefer to use is all that is needed to add an extra benefit for your students. If you need to make more large-scale changes, check with your faculty development office or a trusted colleague for guidance.
2. Be made aware of components of the course that are specifically helpful or a hindrance to student learning.
A second benefit of receiving feedback from students during the semester is that faculty may be made aware of components of the course that are specifically helpful or a hindrance to student learning. My students in one class let me know through feedback forms that I made them nervous when they spoke out in class. I thought I was very encouraging and helpful, but it turns out I have a bit of an intense look on my face when I concentrate very hard about things. As a result, the more interesting and complex the comment from the student, the sterner the look on my face, and the more they thought I was upset or disliked the comments. Once the issue surfaced through a feedback form and discussed in class, students were better able to interpret my nonverbal expression and their anxiety when speaking out in class dropped. Students in my past courses have also pointed out things they found helpful that I had thought of discontinuing (e.g., preview sheets for daily discussions).
3. Students may suggest teaching strategies or aspects of teaching that you had not thought of previously.
A third benefit is that students may suggest teaching strategies or aspects of teaching that you had not thought of previously. Students may recommend study guides for discussion questions, a new way to frame group projects, or that a quiz at the beginning of class would help motivate them to do the reading. Students certainly may at times look to get out of work, but many students care deeply about learning. Those students will frequently give anonymous feedback as to what you might encourage them to do work to improve their own learning.
4. Students are given an opportunity to explain aspects of the course they may not like or even find frustrating.
A fourth benefit in receiving formative feedback from your students is that it gives them an opportunity to explain aspects of the course they may not like or even find frustrating. For a challenging course, students may claim there is too much work assigned, that exams are too difficult, or that they don’t like to be called on in class. Given their feedback, you have the opportunity to explain why you include those course components and the resulting benefit of those items. Students may not be pleased that you won’t change those components of the course, but it is often helpful to be able to explain your rationale.
5. You will likely end up with higher instructor ratings at the end of the semester.
A final benefit from the student feedback is that you will likely end up with higher instructor ratings at the end of the semester (Cohen, 1980; Murray, 2007). You have had an opportunity to surface and discuss issues that frustrate or concern your students. You have the opportunity to make adjustments that will likely create a better course better for your students. Finally, you have demonstrated by asking for their opinions and responding to their concerns that you care about their learning and respect their perspectives.
If you decide to gather formative feedback, consider what method will help you collect pertinent information. Perhaps the most crucial point is to keep the feedback form short.
Most of my feedback forms include only three items:
What aspects of the course are helping you to learn?;
What could be changed that would facilitate even more learning?; and
Please list any additional feedback you would like to provide for me to consider in this course.
I prefer asking "what is working well" and "what would make it better," rather than using terms such as "what is positive/good" and "what is negative/bad." It is also essential to make it clear to the students that you are collecting suggestions for course improvement. Assure students that although all comments are valued; however, not every idea is likely to benefit the course. As the instructor, you can only make changes that you can adopt.
Forms may be handout out in class or collected electronically through your course management system. It is best to gather responses in a way that provides anonymity. Once obtained, following are suggestions for responding to the feedback. This need take only a few minutes of class time.
Place comments into categories or similar themes.
Address comments quickly, ideally in the next class session. Speak to themes as much as possible. My preference is to not read from the collected comments as students may feel like you know who provided the specific criticism.
Instead, summarize the feedback and let students know what changes you will make. Where appropriate, note suggestions you will not be making, and why. In addition, explain items that you will give additional consideration.
Done with the consideration of improving the course for your students in the semester in which they currently are enrolled, formative feedback is an ideal mechanism to determine which aspects of the course may need to be adjusted and perhaps even suggestions for making those changes. Employ formative feedback in ways that require minimal amounts of class time and yet the impact can be very positive in terms of both general affect in the course and also students’ learning.
What additional benefits do you see to having formative feedback from students during the semester? If you do not see other benefits, discuss which of the benefits listed most resonates with you? Identify the two benefits you see as the best benefits for you and explain why those two were chosen?
To what extent do you think students can comment on and benefit their learning? If you had instructors who asked for mid-semester feedback when you were a student, do you think you contributed valuable information? If you did not have the opportunity to provide the feedback, would you have been able to give good feedback to instructors had you been asked?
Create a short formative feedback form that you could use in a course you are teaching. Next, ask a mentor or colleague to look over the form. Ask the person to provide at least one suggestion concerning changes to improve the form. Discuss the suggested changes and address why you feel that the comments would or would not, be a good change for your form.
References and Additional Readings:
Cohen, P. (1980). Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings. Research in Higher Education, 13(4), 321-341.
Floden, J. (2016). The impact of student feedback on teaching in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42 (7), 1054-1068.
Hurney, C. A., Harris, N. L., Bates Prins, S. C., & Kruck, S. E. (2014). The impact of a learner-centered, mid-semester course evaluation on students. Journal of Faculty Development, 28(3), 55. SGID Small Group Instructional Diagnosis
Murray, H. G. (2007). Low-inference teaching behaviors and college teaching effectiveness: Recent developments and controversies. In R. P. Perry & J. C. Smart (Eds.), The scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education: An evidence-based perspective (pp. 145-200). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.