Beki Grinter

Anonymous Class Feedback

In academia, academic management, computer science, empirical, research on January 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I am always really nervous about anonymous class feedback (Georgia Tech, like most Universities I am sure, invites students to participate in an anonymous survey about the class). It’s not just because my Dean reads the reports, but also because it’s the final evaluation by the students of my ability (or not) to communicate to them. I dread seeing figures and written comments that could suggest I’ve not done an important part of my job of teaching.

Despite my dread, each year I try to encourage the students to participate in the survey. I explain that it really is anonymous to me. I can’t tell unless you’ve been the student who has complained about X during the semester and in the feedback it looks like you’ve cut and paste that email message into the comments field. I believe that it’s an opportunity for students to help the instructor improve the class, and it’s their voice into their education.

Teaching feedback has definitely helped me though.

Take for example the following

This was the first course instructor has ever taught. Her enthusiasm for the subject matter is bloody fantastic, however the organization of the course seemed rather haphazard.

It was an accurate comment (which continued with more details about the nature of the disorganization), and I was appreciative that the student had called out the fact that it was my first class ever. It (and other comments) helped me to revise parts of the class extensively. The mistakes I had made had not been intentional, I didn’t imagine that they would cause the problems they did. Those sorts of comments, which I have had for other classes, remain the hardest comments to read. I hate reading comments that suggest that a decision I made had unintended negative consequences. Those are also the comments that make me wish that the students would approach me during the class and discuss the issue, but I understand that’s not always possible. When I can (sometimes I am a bit stumped on how to take action), I revise the class and in some cases now, hundreds of other students who have taken the class since then have implicitly benefitted from those changes. Anonymous class feedback does work, if it means that classes evolve accounting for things that could, on reflection, have been done better.

Teaching feedback is also an interesting reflection of me as a person. I get comments about the British slang I use in classes (and I have gotten better about knowing when I’ve said something no-one in the room understands), and my apparent ability to get off topic. One year I was even told that I was being benchmarked against another faculty colleague who also had a similar reputation. The competition was apparently which one of us would veer the farthest off topic, how they measured this remains a mystery to me. I also have an “um” that I need to work on, and I should seriously consider how much I walk about (one time I tried lecturing in high heels which rather than slowing me down resulted in me taking my shoes off and lecturing).

Some of the most rewarding comments have been about my sense of humour. It’s always good to know that people think I have a sense of humour. This is particularly gratifying because I’ve never seen it on a teaching statement, but I decided to include some text in mine on why humour is a useful way to take a mental break during a long lecture of difficult or dry material. Interestingly enough a student told me through the feedback that it’s also a great way to remember a particular concept. Something I’ve been meaning to add to my teaching statement. One source I draw on for humourous tales is the many mistakes I’ve made, and luckily I’ve got a set of instructional material that includes some pretty funny fails.

Another set of rewarding comments are those from students who feel that what they’ve learnt has changed them. One of the classes I teach includes observation methods. I received this comment.

I am different today than before taking this class: I am more aware of my surroundings after taking this class.

I can’t easily put into words what comments like that mean to me. Sometimes people who will not likely use the methods or content of the class again tell me that it helped them or has changed them. Wow. Once I got a hand written letter from a former student telling me that something I had taught him had helped him land a job (the interviewer had asked him questions about a particular HCI method, one that I had taught him, and even though he was going to be focused on systems development he had helped the interviewer understand what the method was and when/why it was valuable). And to whomever wrote this, well yes, you made my day (and not just because you spelt favourite correctly).

This was my favourite– that’s right favourite– course that I have taken at GATech.

So despite my dread, I will be anticipating anonymous class feedback. I will be reading it, taking what’s good and cherishing it, and trying to amend and evolve my classes. And secretly wishing that I’d gotten it all right the first time.

  1. Since beginning school at CMU, I’ve wondered how it would effect the course if every week students filled out an anonymous survey about the course. 5 minutes every Friday, completion contributing to our participation grade. As a student, when there is a problem I think I can help fix (lack of participation from other students; technical problems during presentations), I try. But I wonder if asking students for their opinion would make them more critical of the course material as well as the professor, more engaged in class, more empowered.

    Or it would be a bunch of kvetchy, grammer-poor notes to pick through at the end of a long week.

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