Navigating Student Feedback and Course Evaluations
Contributors: Lauren Girouard-Hallam and Alexa Sacchi
For many of us, the end of the academic year brings a myriad of feelings ranging from the joy of finishing final exam grading, relief seeing a less-packed Google calendar, and excitement planning a much-needed vacation. Just on the horizon, in the midst of sunshine, there is a looming cloud in the distance…the often-dreaded end-of-term course evaluations. But student feedback shouldn’t rain on a teacher’s parade! In this month’s GSTA Corner, Lauren Girouard-Hallam and Alexa Sacchi provide some tips & tricks for soliciting and navigating student feedback from a graduate student perspective.
TIP #1: Solicit small feedback, too!
Lauren: Not every piece of feedback needs to be a full-blown analysis of the course or lab that you’re teaching. My mentor teaches advanced development at the University of Louisville, and at the end of every class she passes out a blank notecard for students to provide two pieces of information on: one thing the student enjoyed about class that day, and one note for improvement, remaining question, or concern. Similarly, in the lab component of the graduate level stats course that I TA’d for this year, we sent out a weekly three question Microsoft Forms survey. It asked questions like: 1. What did you learn in the lab today? 2. What did the TAs do well today? 3. Is there anything you want us to know that could improve your lab experience? Sometimes, we only asked that third question! My point here is that not every evaluation needs to be time consuming or life altering. Most of the time, it’s about ensuring that students feel like they have a voice and a safe space to bring concerns if they need it.
TIP #2: Remember you’re not a superhero!
Lauren: We’ve all experienced it: that moment when you get an evaluation back for a guest lecture you’re proud of, a lab curriculum you’re sure you aced, a group discussion that you thought was so fruitful and exciting, and the response is less than glowing. Maybe someone thought your pace was too fast or your examples too corny, maybe they didn’t like the sound of your voice, or maybe they felt like they didn’t learn anything at all. It can be disheartening to hear that your work wasn’t received with unbridled enthusiasm and that not every student might have felt successful or content in the end. The balance is in knowing what you can control and what you cannot control. You do not have to fix everything that every student brings to your attention, particularly since students’ opinions may directly conflict (hearing “too easy” from one and “too difficult” from another) and also because some things are simply more “fixable” than others. We can work (to a point) on speaking more slowly and pausing to ask if anyone has questions. We might not be able to change when we need to move on from a learning objective or what software we use in class. And we definitely cannot help what we sound like or the ways that we prefer to be in a space. When receiving feedback, try to imagine what responding to that feedback would look like in action. If the action feels reasonable, try to implement it the next time you’re in the teaching space. If it feels like a lot of trouble or even flat out impossible, it’s time to move forward.
TIP #3: Pull construction out of criticism.
Alexa: Negative course evaluations can be difficult to reconcile with and hard not to take personally. But even bad reviews can still be valuable since they provide insight into a student’s perspective and can help us improve for the future. The biggest challenge is separating student frustration from actual concerns. If you’re able to, prior to course evaluations, remind students that if there was something about the course they didn’t like, to give specific examples and suggestions for improvement. For instance, comments like, “This was the worst class ever!” aren’t particularly actionable. Instead encourage students to provide specific feedback such as, “In my opinion writing 1,000-word weekly reading responses was difficult to manage with my other coursework,” or “The lectures went by too quickly, so having a recording or notes available would be helpful.” You can even provide examples as to what is helpful vs. unhelpful feedback and note that simply venting cannot help improve the class (or your teaching!) in subsequent years. After the evaluations are in, I like to implement the “24-hour rule” before trying to synthesize student comments: read the reviews, give yourself at least 24 hours to process your emotions (both good and bad), then come back and read again. In the second read through, I often have a level head and can start sorting through comments in a productive way. One suggestion is to separate comments into “things students like” and “things to improve” and make note of any repetitive comments. You can then categorize comments more specifically such as: solutions to integrate immediately, solutions to integrate gradually (i.e., over multiple classes or semesters), and future goals.
TIP #4: Identify one area of change for next semester.
Alexa: After reading evaluations and taking notes, you may feel a strong urge to change everything about the course! Course materials take so much time to prepare, so before scrapping everything and starting from scratch, pick one or two small changes to implement for next semester. For example, more immediate and easier changes can include speaking slower/ louder or adding learning objectives at the beginning of a lecture. Bigger changes may need to be slowly integrated across semesters to see how different classes react, such as major adjustments to course content/required readings, the syllabus, or highly weighted assignments. Changing too many aspects of the course all at once will make it tricky to figure out what worked and what didn’t semester to semester. You can also integrate check-ins throughout the term, especially for when you're trying new things. Keep in mind that every class is different. For example, students in the fall term may want practice questions or extra help preparing for their final exam, whereas students in the spring term may want more discussion in class about the content. Different cohorts will have different needs and goals for what they are trying to learn or develop, and it's our responsibility to support and try to meet them where they’re at.