Over the past few years, I have implemented a feedback form at the end of my course. The goal is for me to be able to reflect and improve the course and my teaching methods based on this student feedback and I have found it invaluable. In fact, it is something I wish I had implemented sooner.
I have always regularly reviewed my lessons based on my perceptions of what went well and what didn’t. I used student success data to support my conclusions as well as my own anecdotal notes made during and right after teaching the lessons. For a long time, I thought this was enough. I now realize that while it is important and invaluable, it does not give the same depth that the student’s feedback adds to my evaluation process.
I am willing to admit that the idea of students giving me feedback was daunting and a bit scary at first. I’ve seen some of those “rate your teacher” sites and I didn’t want to stick my neck out for ridicule. The thing is, I didn’t need to worry. It’s funny how truly supportive students are when asked for their honest opinion. Any constructive criticism I have received has been on point and professional in tone. A really serendipitous occurrence is that I find students self-reflect as much or more on the feedback form as on rating the course or myself. For example, one student wrote that the most challenging part of the course was “trying to finish the reading on time” but then replied to the next question, Do you have any constructive suggestions that would help me support students through similar challenges, with “No, I just needed better time management.” To me, that’s a win-win.
The first time I tried feedback forms I got such excellent suggestions that I incorporated a great many into my course right away. It has helped me develop units of study that the students are engaged with and find relevant, and their marks positively reflect how much those little things have helped. For example, I used to teach One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, a book I love, but the students said that was the book they least related to and found difficult to stay engaged with. During the unit, I spent quite a bit of time talking about mental illnesses and the historical treatment of the mentally ill. Students reported great interest in those lessons and suggested more in that vein. From those suggestions, the students and I created the Mental Memoir Unit. We selected memoirs focused on a variety of mental illnesses and students chose the one they were interested in. They read the memoir in small book-chat style groups. I taught mini-lessons on stigma, mental wellness topics, and the historical treatment of mental illness. Students also researched the illness that their memoir covered and then developed an oral/visual presentation to teach the rest of the class and finally created Public Service Announcements to display in the school to help educate and reduce stigma in our school community.
Student feedback developed that unit which I still teach today and students still cite it as one of their favorite and most valuable learning experiences. A number of students expressed that their favourite activity in the course was the Mental Health Presentations. One person’s feedback was, “For one, that was one of my highest marks and I appreciate the fact that awareness in that area is a subject for discussion in education today.” Another student agreed and said, “it was different from older writing like Frankenstein and teaches students that mental illness is a real thing and should not be judged.” It’s really nice to know that it does make a difference.
I also really love how feedback can give me many perspectives. One student said, “I think the most challenging part of the course was the Frankenstein blogs because I felt as if I wasn’t doing them right because we didn’t really have a guideline,” while another said of the same project “I think people were overwhelmed by the freedom of choice and were obsessed with the idea of ‘playing it safe’.” And others loved it “because you are able to be creative with it” and “once I got good ideas they were fun to write and the feedback was easy to follow.” During this particular unit, the students create a blog and write three posts whilst reading Frankenstein. I purposely have left it very open for students to write about anything they want in relation to the book. I provide the marking rubric with success criteria and many ideas as well as archived examples of previous student blogs. Some students still find the process daunting and “don’t know what to write” because they are so used to being told exactly what to write. It’s a learning process for many that in the end is extremely rewarding judging by the improvement I see over the course of their blog writing. The feedback reminds me that some students embrace this freedom, while others are intimidated by it and I need to be cognizant of the difference and perhaps add a little more scaffolding for my more timid writers.
I’ve had comments about the course being “hard” and go through a thorough process of self-checking that I have embedded necessary scaffolds, that my expectations are fair and that I give rich feedback for improvement. I’ve also had some really gratifying responses like “I loved this course – it’s made me fall in love with English. The scavenger hunts were really fun, you include interesting side material and topics outside of the absolute necessary which keeps us interested.” I always ask students for their recommendations for improvement and this response confirms that my efforts have not fallen on deaf ears: “You do an excellent job to stay relatable in a vast and changing society. Children now-a-days are very different compared to previous generations and sometimes it can be hard to be engaging with them. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”