some thoughts on student feedback

In some of my courses, I have tried to ask students for more frequent anonymous feedback – midterm assessments, for example, in addition to the usual end-of-term evaluations. I have often found, however, that the feedback doesn’t teach me much that I don’t already know through simple observation. This might say something about the kinds of questions I ask, but I try to model the questions on other questionnaires, like our end-of-term student evaluation form, or to ask questions directly related to the information I think will help me (I ask students to rate readings on a scale of one to five, with a different rating for how useful and how interesting the readings were; I ask what activity they found most useful and which they found least useful; etc.)

Although some of the responses are thought-provoking, a pattern usually emerges – those students who have appeared to be engaged and motivated usually appreciate the same activities and readings that I feel are most valuable; students who have made it clear since the first day of the class that they are “not available for learning” appreciate activities and readings that demand little of them or are “fun,” regardless of whether they learn anything from them; students who are struggling but doing their best appreciate activities and readings that are concrete, predictable and clearly goal-oriented. (Although the students do not write their names, a combination of handwriting and tone often identifies the author of the comments.)

I have occasionally thrown out an activity because one or more students said something astute about its lack of usefulness. For example, I used to do an exercise where students educated me about current slang in their social circle; I stopped doing it when several students pointed out that I was learning from this, but they really weren’t. I have also occasionally removed readings from the syllabus because many students found them too challenging or simply boring.

However, most of the student feedback I get reinforces things I already know: “good” students, whether talented or just hard-working, like things that they can learn from, and can learn from almost anything when given the chance; “poor” students, whose main priority is doing as little work as possible, generally have little interest in learning and so their feedback is generally not helpful to me.

(An earlier version of this post was originally part of a personal response for an MEd course.)

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