Friday, August 20, 2010

Feedback: It's a two-way street you know

I've been thinking a lot about feedback and the one-way nature of it in education. Wikipedia defines feedback this way:

Feedback describes the situation when output from (or information about the result of) an event or phenomenon in the past will influence an occurrence or occurrences of the same (i.e. same defined) event / phenomenon (or the continuation / development of the original phenomenon) in the present or future.

In many classes, feedback is a one way process: the instructor provides feedback to the student. Typically the student is only granted the ability to provide feedback on the instructor or the course once (at or near the end of the course). This feedback is then not provided to the instructor until after the course has finished. This implies (based on our definition above) that the feedback can not be used to alter the present state of the course that the students are in. This implies an altruistic impetus to the student to even provide feedback (i.e. I will provide feedback not to improve my own state, but to improve the state of future students). I know in my own experience as a student (anecdotal of course, but illustrative) that I only ever filled in the multiple choice part of a end-of-course evaluation unless I was extremely pleased or displeased with the instructor. In addition, by the time the end of term was rolling around, I had forgotten much of the feedback that I had wanted to share.

Looking at it from the other end, this lack of feedback for teachers tends to reinforce the stereotype that teachers are an irreproachable source of knowledge. Stereotypes tend to be more damaging to the one that is being stereotyped that the one perpetrating them. This lack of constructive, useful, timely feedback encourages teachers to accept and embody this omniscient stereotype, and thus not to attempt to become better. Yes, teachers can self-critique and self-reflect upon their own practice (and they should) and change that way. But the system of not permitting feedback for the teacher does not encourage (and in fact discourages) this self-reflection from taking place; in fact it negates any form of reflection of the teacher upon thier teaching practice. It discourages the teacher from changing; what change could be needed by someone that is perfect? By tacitly neglecting feedback, we tacitly accept the idea that we are beyond change and beyond growth; we tacitly accept the idea that we are not learners as we have nothing to learn.

How do we rectify this disparity in our feedback model. The solution is rather simple: do not wait for the prescribed feedback form to come around; be proactive. The exit card strategy is an excellent means of gaining feedback on the lesson from students:

At the end of each class, students are provided a cue card. Upon the cue card they are asked to record the following: One positive item from the lesson, one piece of constructive criticism, and one thing that is interesting (in essence a form of a PMI). Students should be encouraged to do this every class, and to discuss anything they wish. It should also be anonymous.

In my experience, this must be encouraged every class because as students we are very used to having no voice in how we are taught. This idea is not easily dispelled.

It is vital that constructive criticism is acted upon swiftly. Students will realize very quickly if this is a 'sham' when their ideas are not implemented or discussed. Actively discuss the suggestions in class and your feelings on their efficacy.

As I teach in a computer lab, I have digitized my exit card strategy. I use Google Docs to host a form on my course website. The results from the form are dumped into a spreadsheet (think Excel) for me to process. The link to the form is kept on the website and I provide 5 minutes most classes (as I can be forgetful) for students to submit feedback. Here is a sample form for that purpose.

The speed at which I can adjust the flow of the course is empowering. I benefit as a teacher by knowing that my students are understanding my (and our) ideas for the course. I can also gain valuable insights into how my assumptions on how to teach this class may not match the needs of this class. Perhaps more importantly, it shows my students that I am not perfect; that I am growning and learning alongside them; that I make mistakes. But, most importantly, it illustrates those same points to me.

Sample Forms:
General Feedback Form
Exam Feedback Form


  1. I agree student feedback to teachers is essential. I used to sometimes hand out sheets with feedback questions about what they'd learned and what they had/had not enjoyed etc. Later it evolved into a quick jotting on a post-it note at end of class. Nowadays it's rarely even written down. Once you drop the stance of 'teachers in control of learning' and become part of the learning community, it's just a part of everyday conversation.

  2. That is a wonderful place to get to: where the students are comfortable and capable of providing face-to-face feedback to the instructor. It takes time however, and I find the scaffolding of anonymous feedback helps students overcome hesitation with critiqing an instructor.