Getting feedback from students can help you build a better syllabus. They’re the ones you’ve designed it for. They’re the ones who will benefit from using it. They’re the ones who experience a range of different syllabi. And they’re the ones who don’t see the syllabus from a faculty perspective. What follows covers the options for soliciting feedback from students as well as provides a pool of questions and a sample survey for you to use.
Feedback from students can be focused differently, collected at different times, and follow different procedures. It might focus on a particular syllabus, as in the one used in the course they’re taking. Alternatively, it could focus on students’ experiences with syllabi in general. Student input could also address a hypothetical syllabus, such as one with a series of changes the teacher is considering making. You can ask students questions about the syllabus just after they have received or reviewed it. You can ask them about the syllabus as the course unfolds or at the end of the course.
Finally, there are some procedural options. One way to solicit student feedback about any aspect of instruction via a focus group discussion. You can request volunteers (with the caveat that volunteer views might not be representative) or invite a group of students to join a focus group. If the group is providing input on your syllabus, it might be wise to ask a colleague to facilitate the discussion. Students may find it hard to offer critical comments directly to their instructor. Focus groups tend to provide better feedback when their discussion covers a set of open questions—the instructor can provide these in advance. There needs to be a record of what the focus group said, and often it’s hard to facilitate a discussion and simultaneously take notes.
An easier way is with surveys. Here, you can solicit feedback with closed or open questions or a combination of both. The closed questions on most surveys solicit a response on a five- or seven-point, Likert-type scale. The nomenclature at each end of the scale describes opposing reactions. Closed questions can be answered quickly, and if the results are tabulated electronically, acquiring this feedback can be an efficient process. At the same time, closed questions narrow the feedback’s focus. They ask for a response to one question. Leaving space between closed question items allows students to make comments or provide examples or explanations of their ratings.
Open-ended questions encourage respondents to comment where they will and generally provide a larger pool of ideas and information. The caveat: there’s no way to tell whether a given response reflects a widely shared sentiment. And typically, it’s the instructor who goes through the comments, categorizing and otherwise sorting them, although it might be possible for a student group to explore the responses.
Most of our inboxes are flooded with requests for feedback. Students are asked to evaluate every course, every semester at most places, and with most instruments now being online, response rates have fallen dramatically. In the interest of overcoming feedback fatigue, it’s wise to give students a bit of a pep talk about responding. Why are you asking for feedback on the syllabus? What do you plan to do with it, and how will you report back on what you learn?
Most important of all are the questions you ask about the syllabus, and we’re offering some help with that. We’ve put together a pool of both open and closed questions that you can ask about a particular syllabus (this set framed to be asked near or at the end of the course) as well as a set of open-ended questions you can ask about syllabi in general. It’s a pool from which you can pick and choose. These questions grew out of our review of syllabi; their validity and reliability have not been empirically tested. In case you don’t have time or interest in creating an instrument from the pool of items, we’ve selected a set of questions and formatted them as a survey. You can view the question pools as well as the survey handout by downloading the Word files below.
Please feel welcome to use these questions. You are free, indeed encouraged, to revise, rewrite, edit, delete, and add questions. What are you most interested in knowing about the syllabus? We see this as a formative process, one that provides information about the syllabus, not one that “measures” its definitive worth or value.