Encouraging student feedback

Durdle_Door_OverviewAs my American colleagues know, the UK is a socialist paradise and it’s one of the reasons they’re all coming over later this month (the other is our workshop, which you can book a space at here).

One of the many great consequences of our enlightened political choices is the notion of ‘bank holidays’, days especially chosen to have poor weather, so that us Brits can really indulge in moaning about rain. We love it.

This weekend past was, unfortunately, a very poor example, as the sun shone for a full three days, but I braved it all, to go on a short family break on the South Coast. This included a Sunday lunch in a small pub, where (it turned out) a recent graduate of my fine university was one of the people serving us.

The graduate – who’d obviously recognised me from all my media appearances (and from walking past my office for three years) – was very pleasant and chatty as we talked at the end of the meal, finishing off with a cheery “well the main thing is that you had a great meal.”

Sadly, we hadn’t: if you’re at a loose end, I’m sure you can track down my TripAdvisor comments easily enough. As my wife remarked, it’s very easy to put things in a way that makes it difficult to disagree.

And so it is with our teaching. Even if you ask for feedback from students, that doesn’t mean you actually encourage that feedback. Our framing matters.

The key principle to keep in mind when soliciting such feedback is that it is the students’ perspective that matters, not yours. We have to acknowledge that the way they put together their understanding might well not be the same as ours, and the most constructive thing we can do is work from their starting points to unpick their ideas and unblock any problems.

Let’s take a completely non-random example. In the pub, my roast came with a side of seasonal vegetables. I found them barely edible, because they were not cooked through: I like a bit of crunch in my cabbage, but not in my leek. When I told the (other) server this, they responded that “that’s how the chef does them.” No acknowledgement that my viewpoint might be a valid one, and only grudging acceptance that some remedy might be in order: certainly, the chef didn’t seem too moved by my plight, as the replacement side was only marginally better.

Importantly, the pub has something of a different dynamic: I’m the customer and I am paying immediately and directly for something, so there is a strong incentive for them to make/keep me happy. In a university setting that connection is much weaker (whatever you feel about the commercialisation of education), so the primary dynamic is one of wanting to help people to learn. If they’re not learning, then you’re not succeeding and saying “that’s how I’ve always taught this and no-one complained before” isn’t going to resolve anything (except your course evaluations).

And that’s the second point: failure to allow students a voice can come and bite you on the arse in the longer-run. If you shut students down on small things then you’re more likely to find that they develop problems with big things (like you as a person) over time. Even if you don’t care what students think, someone else might care what students think of you. I only complained about the vegetables because we’d had to wait almost an hour for them to be served.

So how to handle this?

Firstly, give space to students to articulate their feelings/concerns. That means regularly making time for this to happen, ideally every session you have.

Secondly, reduce the barriers. Don’t make all the spaces ones where students have to speak in front of everyone else: use ABC techniques, office hours, online forums and the rest to allow those who feel less comfortable to speak.

Thirdly, demonstrate that you listen to, and act upon, the feedback you get. Even if it’s to say why you can’t change something, it’s vital to show that you’re paying attention to your students.

In short, this needs to be part of the furniture, not some painful bolt-on that you look like you’re being forced to do. The cost of walking away from that pub is minimal to me, but the same isn’t true of university.