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Notes from class: Feedback sucks (but it's good for you)

How can we as instructors/professors learn quicker about what it is working and what is not?

Maybe more to the point: do we even want to?

When I began teaching, I realized I needed to learn more and quicker about how I am being received, how the course is working and what is (and what is not) helping students learn. A professor friend of mine shared a little trick which I have refined and adopted: the quick feedback form.

Here is what I do in class (you can let them know in advance):

  1. Ask students to get out a half-sheet of paper.

  2. I put the above image on a Ppt or draw it on the blackboard or whiteboard. They don't put their name on it. It's anonymous.

  3. I give them 2 - 3 minutes to write out thoughts on their own.

  4. I give them 5 minutes to share either in pairs or in small groups (no more than four students in a group) during which I leave the room telling them, "When I come back I want to hear from you."

  5. I leave and come back 5 minutes later.

  6. We discuss. I feel like the best and worst teacher on the planet as their comments fly at me like paper airplanes.

In a recent class, there was a near mutiny about the apparent horrible state of my Canvas page (the LMS we use at Penn State). And my "Announcement" which I send out with great eloquence and clarity are also a mess.

I came back to the room and after a flurry of compliments and kudos, a brave student mumbled something about "sometimes the announcement and assignments on Canvas are unclear." As soon as I thanked the student and showed sincere interest in feedback (when the rest of the class saw I would not shoot the messenger nor would I defend myself and make excuses), about half the class of 35 students raised their hands.

The courageous mumbling of a single student had struck a nerve and an opportunity for creative collaboration and improved learning and teaching.

It was not possible to address all their concerns in the moment so I asked if 2 - 3 of them would sit down with me next week, with one of their computers. We will examine the student experience of the LMS and my (perhaps errant) communications with them.

We talk a lot about giving our students feedback. Indeed, this should be a perennial concern among good instructors (see Research-based tips below from Edutopia). But we would do well to work equally hard to get feedback from them.

And finally I wonder if the attention we have paid to "grade inflation" should also be pointed to "performance inflation" among instructors? That is, do we have a distorted (and heightened) view of our own performance as educators? One might expect these two to evolve together: as educators self-perception of their performance increases they assume higher grades are warranted by their students (because it reinforces their self-perception). After all, don't great teachers produce great students?

In my entrepreneurship class, we teach students to "get out of the building" using Steve Blank's famous credo. We tell them they must speak with and listen to the customer in order to pressure test their ideas.

I have to "get out of the building" of my own head. The Quick Feedback Form above has been a trustworthy tool to force me out from behind my perception and to take the view of those whose learning I seek to serve.

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