It’s that time of year.
Joy! Peace! Goodwill! Laughter and cheer pervade even the gloomiest department. Smiles light the faces of students and teachers alike. No, it’s not the holiday spirit. It’s the transcendent relief that goes hand in hand with the end of the semester!
But in the midst of the merriment there is a slight current of unease…
What, you ask, could possibly sully this magical time?
End of year student evaluations of teaching. Urgh!
You’ve put your heart and soul (and a bazillion hours) into teaching. Like a parasitic disease, developing lesson plans, designing relevant assessments, and enhancing student learning have never been far from your mind. What awaits you at the end of your journey? Student feedback.
Do your class reviews go something like this?
Your brilliance is beyond compare,
You are the best teacher anywhere,
I give you an A,
For every single day,
My eternal thanks.
If so, can I have your autograph?
If not, don’t despair. You can flip that feedback (or criticism, depending on your state of mind), into gold nuggets of insight and wisdom. Here are three rules to help you.
END OF SEMESTER FEEDBACK RULE #1: Discard the fuzzy, bitter, or stinky coating surrounding the gold nugget.
Most feedback comes via a list of numbers generated by students filling out little circles in response to a set of standardized questions. Yay, talk about easy to interpret and use in a meaningful way! (Note, I’m being sarcastic). If we’re lucky, a few students will jot down some thoughts in the open-ended response box. Or perhaps we actively solicit feedback (*cough* offer points for feedback *cough*).
Accurately conveying one’s thoughts and feelings via words is hard, hence the fuzzy nest of extraneous words you may need to penetrate to reveal the essential meaning. Or, there might be a fuzzy constellation of possible interpretations. For example, “I wanted a study guide.” Now, is this comment really about a study guide? It could be related to a myriad of things on the instructor’s OR the students’ end (e.g., no policy on study guides, unclear expectations, confusion about the nature of the exam, poor study habits, need for explicit boundaries, etc.).
Consider the situation from the students’ point of view.
Sift through the vagueness. What are some likely scenarios contributing to this issue, and what could you change next time to solve those problems? Consider the situation from the students’ point of view. (Be the student, little grasshopper).
Some students are beautifully concise, but the gold nugget is buried deep within a bitter, or downright stinky, exterior. For example, “I hated your class and you’re the worst teacher I’ve ever had.” Which leads us to rule #2.
END OF SEMESTER FEEDBACK RULE #2: Take yourself out of the equation.
Now, when someone blatantly attacks us as a person, or our class, which is basically an extension of ourselves, it can be difficult not to take that personally. Just a wee bit challenging, which is to say IT’S REALLY, REALLY HARD. Even well-meaning, innocuous feedback stings a little.
This might be why, when I get reviews, even when I purposefully ask for feedback, my first response is to shove it in a drawer and run away from my office to buy a chai tea and engage the first semi-friendly person I see in a half-hour discussion (or rather, a one-side mega-blather) about hot beverages, or even worse, how frustrating it is to adequately reheat formerly hot beverages.
What happens when people feel attacked? They shut down, put up walls, and stop receiving information. They hang up the closed-for-business sign and walk away. Nothing gets through. This is essentially an automatic response and it happens to the best of us.
Obtain feedback. Take a breather. Peek at feedback. Take a breather. Skim feedback. Take a breather. Read feedback. Take a good, long break. Employ strategies for not taking things personally (e.g., leave your ego at the door, pretend this is a colleague’s feedback and you’re trying help them, surround yourself with supporters – friends, pets, teddy bears). Re-read feedback. Analyze feedback and find the gold nuggets.
Now it’s time to reflect, not only on the feedback, but on the semester as a whole.
END OF SEMESTER FEEDBACK RULE #3: Reflect without judgement.
Physical growth is fueled by food and exercise. Personal growth is fueled by reflection. Only by looking backward can we truly move forward. Otherwise, we tend to stay in the same place. Note, looking backward does NOT imply lingering in the past. So, take the time (and it will take time) to reflect. Mull things over with your favorite hot beverage. Ponder. Contemplate.
And while you’re in a zen-like state of reflective bliss (sitting cross-legged and visualizing gold nuggets in both hands), don’t beat yourself up or start generating mental lists of all the things you think you did wrong. Academics tend to be type-A perfectionists who hyperfocus on the negative. Are you your own worst critic? Stop it!
Resist the urge to buy into troll talk (whether self-talk or nasty insinuations from toxic co-workers). Keep it positive. Blaming yourself (or the students) doesn’t solve anything.
When those epiphanies hit, take notes. Because there is a distinct possibility, given all the other obligations on your professorial plate, that you’ll have forgotten 99% of your brilliant ideas by the time you teach again.
If you have any tips or tricks regarding feedback you’d like to share, please let us know using the comment box below.
The Transformed Teacher
The Transformed Teacher is a faculty member who took a bold step out from behind highly detailed lecture notes and a gigantic podium into the teaching-verse, which is a magical place filled with helpful tips, tools, and teachers.
As I learn more about teaching, I find I’m significantly better than I was before, and a lot less neurotic. In fact, sometimes teaching is downright fun. Imagine that.
Check out my previous posts:
5 steps to changing behavior.
Stuck in the middle (of the semester) with me.
Group work (pt. 1): Let’s get real.
Justifying just makes life easier.
Say something. Anything. Please…?
Changing education pain to pleasure.
Submit a pedagogical question or comment to the Office of Teaching and Learning (firstname.lastname@example.org) for answers in an upcoming blog post.