As a software development instructor, I receive student feedback every eight weeks.
Sometimes this feedback gives me insight into a trend that spans multiple courses. Other times it is directly related to one specific course I teach or even one specific lesson.
In either case, I try to use this feedback to improve the learning experience for future students. Sometimes this involves a change to a specific course based on the feedback. Other times it’s a blanket change to the lot of them.
Our college uses SmartEvals for engaging students and soliciting feedback for the courses they take. SmartEvals facilitates this process using a relatively short survey. These surveys can be useful when it comes time to plan, modify, or re-design a course. They are also useful for addressing issues with student learning as a whole.
As I continue to teach, I learn new things everyday. Sometimes I learn more about software development. Other times I learn more about teaching.
Today I want to talk a bit about course feedback and these student evaluations.
There are multiple stakeholders when it comes to course feedback. The primary stakeholders being the students and the teachers.
How do teachers feel about this process?
Teachers can be skeptical
Student evaluations are supposed to provide a way to measure the quality of the course as well as the quality of the teacher.
Some educators are skeptical of these evaluations.
In fact, I’ve learned that course feedback is a sensitive subject for many of my peers. Thinking about it objectively, I guess I can see why. We all want to know where we can improve, but how many people do you know that look forward to criticism – even if it is meant to be constructive?
So, why don’t teachers like surveys?
Here are a few commonly referenced issues:
- Response rates are too low. According to an article on NPR.org, fewer than 50% of students actually complete these evaluations. Because of this, it is important to make sure as many students complete the survey as possible.
- Bias. In the same article linked above, Philip Stark (chairman of the statistics department at the University of California, Berkeley) states mentions sampling bias. My peers echo Philip’s concern that evaluations are mainly completed by either very happy students or very unhappy students. Students who aren’t at the ends of this happiness meter might not complete the evaluations at all. The others complete the survey, but with bias.
- Surveys highlight a moment in time. Each semester a new crop of students enters the program. And, each new crop is different than the one that came before it. Sometimes a section of students just performs better than the section before it, and vice versa. So, it can be difficult to gauge whether issues are tied to that set of students, or if they are tied to the course (or the instructor).
There are more issues, but you get the idea.
Teachers might be skeptical but we should still use evaluations to improve the way we teach and the experience students have with learning.
Teachers aren’t the only ones who view surveys with a little bit of animosity.
Students are skeptical as well
Why don’t students complete surveys?
Students have been known to dislike the survey process too. They can be apprehensive about surveys.
From the student’s perspective, here are two major issues:
- Surveys take time. And, as a whole, our student population largely consists of non-traditional students with full-time jobs, and families. Who has time to complete the homework, and… this survey?
- Will anyone read this? And, will they actually use it? Sometimes students encounter the same issue again and again from semester to semester and from one course to the next. If they leave feedback about an issue and no one does anything about it, why did they even complete the survey? They are left asking, “Is no one reading the comments I leave?”
There are more issues, but again you get the idea. Students don’t have a lot of time and even if they complete the surveys they may not see any results from having done so.
How do you get students to complete surveys?
Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. Some students will complete the surveys without any prodding. But others will require some sort of incentive.
Before diving into incentives here are ideas for alleviating the student issues I described above.
Surveys take too much time: To help alleviate the issue, provide 10-15 minutes of classroom time to complete the survey. Ask for a volunteer to take charge of the classroom, then leave the classroom and go out into the hallway and wait for students to complete the survey.
No one reads my feedback: To help alleviate the issue, let students know some things you’ve already changed in the course based on feedback from previous sections. Make sure you spend time reading the responses for open-ended questions in your surveys. Students took the time to write to you so take the time to read. If your surveys don’t have open-ended questions, look for trends and/or anomalies. Use surveys to identify pain points for students.
For those students focusing on WIIFT, you can offer incentives to get them to complete their evaluations.
As mentioned previously, I receive student evaluations every eight weeks. And, every eight weeks our college provides examples of incentives for increasing response rates for SmartEvals surveys. Their goal is to have as many students respond as possible.
Here are some example incentives they’ve provided:
- Allowing a 3×5 index card w/ notes for the final
- Removing the lowest quiz grade
- Some form of extra credit
These incentives might work for you, but I went down a different path.
The “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE” card…
My personal method for increasing response rates is to provide students with a virtual “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE” card if they complete the SmartEvals survey. This card may be used to retake any assignment in the course. As long as I’ve not already provided a solution project, students can retake the assignment.
If a student missed an assignment, they can use the card.
If a student failed an assignment, they can use the card.
Each semester there are students who chase the “A”; if a student has received a lower grade than they like, they can use the card.
How I approach Course Feedback
So I’ve talked a bit about the issues with course evaluations from both a teacher’s and a student’s perspective. I’ve also talked about ways to incentivize students into completing their evaluations.
Now let me share how I used to feel about student evaluations and how I approach them today.
When I first started teaching, I would casually read survey results and try to glean what nuggets I could. I would look for patterns. If many students gave me a low score for the same item I knew I had to do something about it right away. If just one student gave me a low score I would take note, but I might not make immediate changes and would take another look after reading the survey results from the next semester.
When survey results included meaningful answers to open-ended questions life was good. But if they were canned responses such as “I had no issues” or “Everything was fine”, I found them to be largely useless.
These days I take an active role in course feedback. I no longer sit back and wait to see what happens.
I now use surveys as an opportunity to address specific pain points I am feeling. For example, I’ve been having problems with students completing required reading assignments. If I don’t provide a quiz for every reading assignment students won’t do them. Well, as mentioned previously, students are busy. If I use a quiz most will simply open the book and the quiz at the same time and just answer the questions without retaining any of the information.
So what does that mean for course feedback?
In my new approach to student evaluations, I still send out communications promoting their completion, but I also request specific feedback. My goal being to use these evaluations to my advantage rather than dread them like many of my peers.
But what does this look like? Let’s take a quick look at an example from these past eight weeks.
From: George Andrews
04/18/2016 11:59 am
It is again time for Course Evaluations 🙂
As you know, I use information from the SmartEvals survey to improve my courses for future students.
With this in mind, I want to promote 100% participation in this process. If you complete the Course Evaluation for this course, I will provide you with a “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE” card that may be used to retake any assignment from these past 8 weeks for which I have not already provided a solution.
BTW: There is an open-ended question in the survey asking you to “Tell us about any opportunities to improve.” This time around I would really appreciate feedback on how I might improve the way reading material is presented in my courses.
Please answer the following questions in that open-ended question:
- What do you think of the textbook for this course?
- If you were teaching this course, how would you make sure the reading has been completed?
- Do you have any suggestions for improving the way the reading assignment connects with the learning activities?
Finally, include any other suggestions you have for improving the course that aren’t related to the reading material.
You should have already received the SmartEvals Course Feedback email that will allow you to complete the survey. Go ahead and complete it now to receive your “GET OUT OF JAIL FREE” card.
Let me know if you have any questions about the survey process.
IT Software Developer Instructor
Instead of leaving feedback up to chance, I’ve specifically tasked students with helping me solve a problem.
In the next weight weeks I’ll address another issue. In this way I hope to iteratively improve each course over time using a process already required by my institution.