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.