Learning from the Perils of Student Feedback

At the end of last semester I asked my students for very structured and detailed feedback on their feelings towards their course and my teaching style (to see the blog click here). This semester I decided to approach the task of obtaining student feedback very differently. I simply gave the students two pieces of paper and asked the students to write on one piece of paper ‘one thing they liked about the course that we should keep the same for 1st grade students next year’ and ‘one thing they think we could change to improve the course for the 1st grade students next year’. Their only other direction was that I only wanted to know about my course, not the other native teacher’s course. As you can tell these questions are extremely vague and also very subjective, I designed them like this as I really wanted to know the first thing that popped into my students heads.

They feedback from these questions has been…… interesting and exemplified many of the issues we must take into account when learning from our students’ feedback.

Without a doubt the most common feedback given for ‘a thing we should change’ has been that I should give less homework. That would be fine, apart from the fact I have only given one VERY short homework activity this semester! The other native English teacher has given homework every week though, so I can only imagine the students have got confused regarding where the homework has come from. They have simply thought conversation class = homework. So this presents my first issue:

1. Often students may not be giving feedback specifically on the course we ask, but (consciously or unconsciously) their general feelings towards English, our institution, their feelings towards life or anything else at the forefront of their minds.

For the next few classes that day I purposefully mentioned to the classes, before the feedback activity, that they had not received any homework this semester. I hoped that by slyly getting that in there I might encourage students to think about something other than homework, I was wrong. More than half of the feedback slips then said “give more homework to the students next year” often justified by adding “because it will help them improve and practice their English”. That is a good reason, although I’m sure that somewhere in the back of their minds they just want the new students to have to work even harder than they did! This presents another problem with student feedback:

2. We have to consider the motivations for a student’s feedback. Their comments may not always be motivated by wanting to achieve the same goals as we are.

Another very common comment for something I could change centered around a certain type of activity I have regularly used this semester. This activity involves students having to summarise pieces of information and then share their findings with others in the class to complete the whole task. It’s a very standard mingling activity, one that I find extremely effective and results in a large block of constant speaking and listening practice. Some of the student’s don’t seem to like it as they don’t like getting out of their seats and they don’t like having to speak to so many people in the class in English. It is, however, a fantastic activity for practicing a large number of skills, I find it very effective, but the students suggested removing it. This brings me to a third problem:

3. We are the professionals, not our students (or their parents for that matter). Sometimes we have to go with what we think is best for our students whether they like it or not, this can include curriculum design, classroom activities, rewards and punishments. We should not take negative feedback literally.

Many students also made comments regarding the logistics of the classes, such as that we should have a lesson outside when possible, that they would prefer it if there was no Korean co-teacher in the room or that classes should be mixed. Most of these things I actually agree with them about, apart from the co-teacher suggestion, as I am fortunate to have extremely professional and effective co-teachers at my school. These suggestion are, however, logistically impossible, for legal reasons a co-teacher must be in the class, for safety reason classes are not allowed to be taken outside without permissions from the vice-principle and having mixed classes is a decision that would be made by the school not me, which brings me to the final problem with students feedback:

4. Students are often unaware of the logistical reasons as to why certain decisions are made and why certain limitations are put in place and the boundaries we have to work within as teachers. Unless these issues are discussed with the students after they have given the feedback they may think they are simply being ignored.

Of course I am not suggesting ( even for a nano-second) that we shouldn’t engage in student feedback, for me it is one of the most invaluable tools for professional development we have, but we have to be aware of the limitations in order to make the feedback as useful and meaningful as possible. By being aware of the problems above I can narrow down what I should be learning from the feedback.

To provide very brief examples, from the first couple of suggestions I can learn that homework is obviously a sensitive issue to my students. This is understandable considering they are in academies until 10 p.m every night, so I must make sure that next year I make students aware of exactly why they are being given homework, what the benefits to them in completing it are and give them ample time and support in completing it. From the third suggestion I can learn that I need to spread these types of activities out so they don’t over-burden students, this year they were heavily concentrated in the second semester, next year I will plan the syllabus more evenly. The fourth problem can help me realise not that I should ask my co-teacher to leave the room next year, but that her role and how the students can benefit from having her in class must be made clear to the students at the start of the course.

Student feedback is invaluable, but only if we are aware of the difficulties involved with collecting and analysing it. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as getting some feedback and making the changes. Student feedback isn’t always as objective or clear as we would like, but there are always important lessons learn.

Don’t forget you can follow my slightly more concise ramblings on twitter @AlexSWalsh or to keep updated with AlienTeachers ‘like‘ us on facebook!

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