It takes a certain amount of courage to talk with students about course evaluation results. I’m thinking here more about formative feedback the teacher solicits during the course, as opposed to what’s officially collected when it ends. Despite how vulnerable revealing results can make a teacher feel, there are some compelling reasons to have these conversations and a powerful collection of benefits that may result from doing so.
I t takes a certain amount of courage to talk with students about course evaluation results. I’m thinking here more about formative feedback the teacher solicits during the course, as opposed to what’s officially collected when it ends. Despite how vulnerable revealing results can make a teacher feel, there are some compelling reasons to have these conversations and a powerful collection of benefits that may result from doing so.
Talking about the results shows that the teacher cares about the feedback students have provided. When teachers get rating results after the course has concluded, the students who gave the feedback don’t see any follow-up. In some cases, they see teachers who they (and many other students) have evaluated poorly continue to teach as they always have. These students then conclude that the feedback they provided wasn’t taken seriously by the teacher or the institution. When a teacher talks about evaluation results with students, it’s a visible demonstration their feedback has value and that can motivate students to offer more specific feedback.
It’s a conversation that allows the teacher to ask for clarification. Most students don’t have a lot of experience providing feedback. Many of them don’t write well. Often they dash off comments without thinking much about what they mean. The teacher can ask for examples or get more details when students provide contradictory comments.
A review of results helps to create a sense of perspective for individual students and the class as a whole. A student may strongly object to a particular teaching practice. For example, working on case studies before the material has been presented in class may impede that student’s learning, but if it’s a practice that helps most of the rest of the class, that’s important feedback. It doesn’t mean that the student’s objection should be completely ignored, but it also explains why the teacher isn’t going to abandon the practice.
Students tend to be better at voicing objections than proposing solutions, although occasionally they will offer an excellent idea and prompting them can produce even more details. Discussion of possible solutions gives the teacher a range of options to consider. And, if the teacher implements a student-proposed alternative, often that increases class buy-in and improves the likelihood of success.
It’s a perfect time to talk about why certain policies and practices are not going to be changed, even though they’re engendering lots of objections. If the students want the teacher’s PowerPoint slides because having them would make taking notes less onerous, the teacher can explain why it’s important for students to take notes—the value of listening and putting the content in their own words. Maybe a compromise is possible—the teacher makes available an outline that contains some of the content, but it’s up to the students to flesh out the rest.
The teacher can model constructive ways of talking about negative feedback. If the teacher can discuss student objections without becoming defensive, apologize (if appropriate), honestly consider other options, express willingness to try different approaches, explore compromises—all of this speaks volumes about the teacher’s commitment to the course. It also shows students that there are constructive ways of responding to criticism, that there are lessons to be learned from negative feedback, and best of all, how to fix things that aren’t working.
Sharing and discussing the student-led feedback increases students’ receptiveness to teacher feedback. Because they’ve been listened to, there’s now some pressure on them to reciprocate in kind. In addition, students need to hear teacher observations about how they are functioning as a class—what they’re doing that’s supporting efforts to teach effectively and what they could do to improve the climate for learning in the course.
We so need to re-write the end-of-course ratings story. Most of the time, it eloquently demonstrates how feedback should not be solicited, given, or received. The story students need to hear is one where teacher and students share and respond to feedback that describes how learning is happening in a course. That story begins during the course, not at its end. It solicits descriptive information about specific aspects of the course, not global evaluations. The results are shared, discussed, and acted upon collectively, and now we’re on the way to a story with a happy ending.
Note: my thinking about these reasons was first prompted by this article: Caulfield, J. (2007). What motivates students to provide feedback to teachers about teaching and learning: An expectancy theory perspective. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 1 (1), 1-13.