Coming to Terms with Student Feedback

At the end of the fall term, I asked my students to fill in a one-page evaluation of the module thus far, and they were not alone. All across the UK (and the world) university students were being asked to rate their courses, their lecturers and their university. It happens every year, but I suspect that few really believe that their feedback matters. Indeed, some doubt that lecturers even read it. We do.

As part of an effort to reassure students that we’ve heard them (and are acting on their feedback) I was asked to write a digest of my students’ concerns and how the staff on the module would address them. This isn’t a new phenomena at my university, but as this is my first year acting as module convener, it is the first time that I have been able to review the entire feedback pool. It has been a strange experience.

Each module had its own quirks and wrinkles, but what I want to write about today is coming to terms with feedback of a personal (or at least individual) nature. How do you deal with nasty remarks? Worse, how do you deal with gushing praise. No one wants to write to their Head of Department and say ‘They like me. They really like me.’

I have been told by career development advisers that we should all be more confident in acknowledging praise, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to write a report that calmly lists those instances when my students think I’m great. It just seems…wrong.

What I can take away from the mid-module feedback, I believe, is a rather interesting sketch of my teaching personality. Taking the super majority opinion (>66%) I am

  • Nice & Approachable
  • Engaging & Enthusiastic
  • Organised & Responsive (to emails and queries)
  • Knowledgeable & Informative
  • Overly Demanding

Yes. That one threw me, too. I remember being a student and I don’t recall many instances of my peers saying ‘Professor A is wonderful. Very nice and such a harsh marker, too!’

Upon reflection, however, I find this juxtaposition strangely comforting. I’m not letting them get away with anything. I’m pushing them to read more and write better than they are used to, but I’m doing it with a smile. In the end, it’s probably the best I can hope for. Of course, some students didn’t find me lovably demanding. Some genuinely found me punitive and asked that their essays be second marked. Of course, they already are, but that’s not the point.

The point is dealing with a not-insignificant minority of your students feeling unfairly tread upon. Do you take it to heart? Soften your approach? Or do you grumble–under your breath–what do they know, and carry on?

On the one hand, I’ve never given a mark below 60 without detailed feedback explaining exactly where I thought their essay was weak and how my mark relates to the specific marking criteria. I am, therefore, absolutely confident that I am not marking unfairly. On the other, I’m a big softy. Students come to my office on the verge of tears (quite often) and explain that they’ve never received a 2:2 (B-/C+) or Third Class (C-/D+) before, and they simply don’t know what to do. I’ve never caved on a mark because of tears, but I have often wanted to.

Having reviewed this year’s feedback en masse, I do worry that my standards are a bit high. But, in the end, when as student earns a First (A) in my class, they know they’ve really earned it.

Having dealt with personal feedback, I turn to that directed at the course itself. Now, I’m all for acknowledging faults in design and delivery, but what do you do when a third of your students want more of something, a third want less of it, and a third drew a picture of a rocket ship.  Don’t blame them. They’ve had to fill out a lot of these forms.

2 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Student Feedback

  1. The Plashing Vole

    I teach in two different departments: one says I'm too tough, one says I'm too soft with my marking. Figure that one out… Our major problem is varied marking standards. Some colleagues have literally never given lower than a 2.1 and never found a plagiarist, so when the students get 3rd class grades from us, they rightly can't understand why similar performance is graded differently.

    We used to do feedback in class, so the staff member took the sheets without knowing who'd written them. We'd regularly discard abusive ones (a colleague once got 'fuck off, Limey' when she worked in the US) and those with no comments on. I've had 'nice arse' and 'terrible clothes' – amusing, but not useful metrics. We did and do take criticism quite seriously: I've a meeting about one module next week which is a direct response to student comments. However, all student feedback is now online and direct to (weirdly) the marketing department, so we don't get to filter for inappropriate or unjustified comments. Part of the problem with the system is that only those highly motivated (positively or negatively) bother to respond now, so it's automatically a distorted picture of how they're getting on. I usually do an informal verbal check during the term – ask them how they're getting on, whether they think the workload is too light/ok/too heavy, intellectually stretching etc, and make it clear who they should talk to if there's a problem with me. I hate it when they name colleagues, even if the criticisms sound accurate.

    I always get nervous when the feedback is reported to us. I'm known as friendly and approachable, and worry that that's code for 'easy touch' or 'not challenging enough' in comparison to colleagues. I've actually had more incisive comments on my teaching style from students – especially mature students – than from my PGCE tutors, and I've certainly adapted style and content in response to them.

  2. lizgloyn

    Now, I'm all for acknowledging faults in design and delivery, but what do you do when a third of your students want more of something, a third want less of it, and a third drew a picture of a rocket ship.

    Oh, this sounds familiar… I had a very similar experience when I looked through my feedback at the end of last term. I find it particularly difficult to know what to do when students want more information on the Powerpoint slides – it feels like a request that isn't actually a request but an articulation of general fears about Not Getting All The Information Written Down, and I don't know whether I can address that in a single lecture course.

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