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Course Instructor Feedback can be a very useful tool to help strengthen our future pedagogical practices. Unfortunately, it is sometimes hard to productively interpret and incorporate the feedback, especially since the numeric averages can often leave instructors feeling confused and worried that they are not living up to department standards. Below, I offer some tips on how to affectively deal with feedback in a productive way.

  • Do Not Place Your Self Worth on Numbers

Every teacher has encountered an over-achieving student who performs just short of perfect on an essay, receives and A- and schedules a mini-panic attack with the instructor during office hours because they feel like a failure for not achieving their high school norm of an A on everything. In fact, students will often be heard defining their selfhood by their grades: “But I am an A student” is a common rejoinder in college classrooms, especially at Notre Dame where there is a large amount of pressure placed on students from internal and external factors to excel at the highest level.

One of our jobs as instructors is to dispel the myth that grades are equivalent to some sort of quality of personhood and to emphasize that learning from mistakes is much more important than defining oneself by perfection or lack thereof.  I say this, but then again, I know I make these value judgements about myself based upon quantitative feedback. I remember once having students fill out informal evaluations at the end of a class and discovering one had actually went a step further and playfully graded me on my teaching. The grade was a B+, a grade that I normally emphasize as “very good” to worried students who have been displaced from there A pedestal. Indeed, a B+ is, by definition, very good. Yet, I remember being disheartened and thinking, sadly “Oh no! I am only a B+ teacher.” I obsessed over this so much that I overlooked all of the praise and helpful criticism from both this student and others. I fell into the trap of defining myself by the grade.

After mid-term evaluation reports were disseminated this semester, another instructor told me that they were a 4.3 as a teacher and wondered if this was normal. Again, the number, rather than the feedback, stuck out most to this person. I told them that the number actually sounded quite positive to me, especially for their first-time teaching, but that if they really wanted to know where they stood in relation to the rest of the department, she should ask the program coordinator for an average. Even then, however, the results are subjective. Unless your numbers represent an extreme aberration from the average, the small divergence of points between one instructor and another may be due to many factors external to a specific instructor’s abilities, including how each student measures the different between a 4 and a 5. What’s the difference between very good and excellent? Well, it really depends on how you define each term.

The most important thing to remember is that, while the number will be used toward administrative purposes and matter at job interviews and promotions, the real value of the feedback is to learn what you could be doing better and make your teaching stronger for next term. Also, I would bet that every teacher has at some point in their career received the one oddball series of lowest possible marks from at least one disgruntled student who trolled them on the course evaluations. That happens. If it’s an aberrancy, treat it as such. Do not let it define your value. If you get a number of low scores, go to the written comments and try to figure out what may have gone wrong.

  • Focus on Specific Qualitative Feedback

This is where students will articulate specifics on what they thought worked and what they might have wanted to be stronger. Admittedly, these are often hard to interpret as well because students do not always explain exactly what assignment made them feel a certain way. This is why asking specific questions on the CIF, or distributing an extra, informal CIF, is always important. CIFs will nearly always include an option for the instructor to add a number of their own specific questions so that they may receive a more tailored report. I suggest adding 2 or 3 specific questions of your own so as to not overwhelm students with too many questions. Ask questions pertaining to a particular assignment activity. Think about what you struggled the most with over the semester and use this as an opportunity to have the students provide you feedback on this portion of the class. Do not think about evaluations as students critiquing you but rather as students helping you achieve your goals, the same as you do for them.

  • It’s Not Too Late to Receive Feedback

I am aware that some of the advice I am providing, such as writing your own CIF questions for the students, is coming a bit late now that CIFs had to be completed yesterday. However, that does not mean that you cannot still solicit feedback from your students. Feedback should never be seen as just an administrative requirement that the powers that be handle. Rather, always take control of the feedback yourself and create a conversation with students. During finals week is the perfect time to send students a few questions for e-mail and ask them to kindly respond if they have time. You likely won’t receive feedback from every student but you will receive feedback from those who honestly have something to say. Sending an e-mail asking for some additional feedback will also demonstrate to students that their opinions and the course truly matter to you and that you did not just stop thinking about the course because you’ve had your last class.

  • Breathe, Relax, and Reflect

So when you finally receive the feedback from your students in the next few weeks, remember: breathe. They are not a character judgement. The numbers are not measures of your self-worth. The reports are merely the product of your student’s opinions and they, for the most part, want to help you. Especially if you frame the feedback as a way for them to make the class better. Always emphasize that they are involved in the process of your class. That will help them create better, more invested feedback, and remind you that this is not a measure of your ability but a conversation that will help you better reflect upon and strengthen your teaching.

Please also know that Notre Dame’s Kaneb Center is always available to sit down with you and help interpret your feedback and create a plan to incorporate it into your future teaching.

  • Further Reading

Advice from Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning on How to Interpret CIF Feedback: http://bokcenter.harvard.edu/interpreting-feedback-and-evaluations

 

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