One of my friends on Facebook is a college professor at my alma mater who is in her second year of post-graduate teaching at the university; although I never had her for a class, she and I discussed doing some work together for a digital rhetoric/new media article she wanted to submit to an online journal because I had experience with PHP/MySQL coding (the collaboration never happened, sadly).

Her status was about having just taken a look at online evaluations, which the university just switched to this year, and being depressed at the negative feedback. Being a fairly new teacher as well, I know how it is to get negative feedback and how frustrating it can be, but I shared some advice with her about how I’ve learned to handle feedback in general, and I’d like to share that with you as well.

Before I go into my rules for handling feedback, let me first unequivocally say: I think feedback of almost any kind is extremely useful, and students ought to have the opportunity to voice their opinions on the classroom. Teachers have the tendency to insist that the classroom is ours, and although we do tend to take more ownership because it is our job and we have the ultimate responsibility to take action to make things run well, students need to also feel like it is their classroom, even if it is only for 45 minutes every day. Being able to have some input in how things run – especially when it results in honest change – is just one way that students can take ownership. (I may blog about another idea at a later date.)

Okay, here’s how I address feedback:

  1. When I give the opportunity for feedback, I encourage both positive and negative feedback. This generally works to elicit both kinds of feedback, and it’s nice to hear even little things that are going well along with issues that need to be corrected. By making this explicit as well, I think it gives students pause to think about the whole picture, which may result in a more well-rounded view of the classroom – always a plus.
  2. When I get the feedback, I read through all of it in order to process it. The first step to this is to filter out the noise. You see, there is bound to be – even in the best teacher’s classroom – information that is practically useless to even consider. This includes (but is not limited) to:
    • Comments about the discipline itself, e.g. “I just don’t really like English” or “I doubt I’ll ever use this math after high school”;
    • Complaints that are unfair or even untrue – these are much harder to rope down, and you have to have a keen self-awareness to discern these; and
    • Criticisms about you personally (ad hominem attacks, essentially).
  3. Once you have mentally eliminated all of this junk information, you must reflect on the relative usefulness of the suggestions. Some advice is clearly better than others, and even the most frequently given input may not be plausible. I’ve had students tell me that I should teach more like other teachers, but clearly it’s not reasonable for me to change my whole teaching style because it works for another teacher. (On the other hand, it might be a chance to talk to that teacher and see what they see as their best teaching attributes in order to determine if a different approach might be useful.) There is also bound to be some contradictory advice as well, where (in my case) some students may want more writing opportunities and some may complain that we do too much writing already; since you can’t please everyone, you have to determine what you think is best and ignore the students’ conflicting statements.
  4. Enjoy the praise – you have to take joy in the positives to keep going, in my opinion.
  5. When you see the students the next time after having read the feedback, thank them for their honesty and input. Doing this sets a positive precedent for the next time you offer the opportunity for feedback, as well as showing the students that you do value their input. If they feel like you’ve taken their feedback to heart, then maybe they’ll be more prone to getting on board with what you’re doing.
  6. Make reasonable changes based on the feedback. Show the students that their input meant something.

I think that this approach to feedback works very well when done within the same course; it wouldn’t work well at the end of a course (as the collegiate online evals mentioned at the beginning are) when students may not have you as a teacher again and hence don’t have any real incentive to be fair and to give useful advice. In a sense, feedback works best as a sort of formative assessment – but for you, not for the students. If we take this self-assessment model seriously and test our own teaching practices constantly, then I think that improvement is almost sure to happen.

We’ll see if it works for me when we come back from break and I do this with all (or at least most) of my classes.

Readers, do you have any experiences with student feedback that led you to better teaching practices? Do you have any more advice for teachers and feedback? Post your thoughts in comments.