We occasionally meet instructors who are reluctant to solicit early feedback from their students; most commonly, these instructors are worried either (1) that students aren't in the best position to judge a process in which they are still immersed, or (2) that inviting students to identify things which may not be working as well for them—especially if there's a chance that they can't be changed—could have the adverse consequence of putting students in the mindset of dissatisfied customers. These fears are entirely understandable—but also, in our experience, unwarranted. So long as you explain to students why you welcome their feedback, process the feedback with an open mind for what students might be trying to tell you (even if imperfectly), and commit to following up on the parts of the feedback that you can address, early feedback can be a great boon to your growth as an instructor.
Just think of the advantages. By asking students for feedback early or midway through a course, you provide yourself with the opportunity to learn what is working and not working in a class, and to make informed mid-course changes. Early feedback also provides you with an opportunity to have an open conversation with students about what can and cannot change about a class, improving transparency and revisiting the goals of the class and why it is run the way it is. Finally, by asking students to reflect on whether they are learning the things they need or want to learn, you are encouraging students to recognize the extent to which they, too, are responsible for what happens in the classroom.
Early feedback forms can be administered in person during class time, or students can be asked to complete them online in their own time. To obtain the most value from the responses, it is important to ensure that the questions address key aspects of the course. Students should understand that their feedback is anonymous, and that you will use it to consider how to plan the rest of the semester. In general, the key areas that speak to a student’s experience of a course are:
- How the course is structured or organized;
- How effective the teaching is;
- How the readings and assignments are perceived;
- The nature and quality of student learning; and
- The student workload and amount of effort required.
Once you have settled on the kind(s) of feedback that you would like to receive, we recommend the following protocol for collecting, processing, and responding to it:
- Collect it. While some of the techniques highlighted above in "Ongoing Feedback" (e.g. minute papers at the end of class) can be used to collect early or midterm feedback, you may want to make use of a more thorough feedback form. Harvard offers instructors a number of online options, like the "ungraded quizzes" pre-loaded into your Canvas site, Qualtrics, or Google Forms. If possible, however, we encourage instructors to consider using paper forms in-class, which tend to yield both higher response rates and more thoughtful comments. Click below on "For more information..." for a handful of sample forms which you should feel free to customize for your own purposes.
- Process it. Whether you sit down with a member of the Bok staff, your Departmental Teaching Fellow, a mentor, or a peer, we recommend that you share your feedback with someone whom you trust to keep it in perspective. It is easy to fixate on one outlier comment, particularly a negative one. In their book Thanks for the Feedback, Doug Stone and Sheila Heen highlight three "triggers" that may keep us from learning from a piece of feedback: (1) truth ("this feedback is simply wrong"), (2) relationship ("whether or not it's true, I can't hear this feedback from you"), and (3) identity ("I'm not that kind of person"). An interlocutor can help you see past these triggers and discover patterns that your emotional response to the feedback can obscure.
- Respond. Just as you owe it to your students to give them feedback on their graded work, you owe it to them to acknowledge their feedback on your teaching. It may very well be the case that you cannot address every one of the concerns that students raise. Teaching Fellows in particular often find themselves unable to moderate reading loads which seem excessive to students. That's fine—what is important is that you think through how you might at least explain to students how and why the class is structured as it is, and that you have heard and appreciate their perspective. You may want to go so far as to share the responses with them, even showing them a graph of the distribution of responses in the event that the class seems divided on the utility of a particular activity or assignment. (it might even prove to be a valuable opportunity to stimulate their metacognition, as they appreciate for the first time why another student found an exercise useful.)
- Stick to your plan. Perhaps this goes without saying, but if you've promised students that you will change some aspect of your teaching in response to their feedback, make sure that you follow through! Better yet, co-opt your students into this process: tell them that you hope they'll hold you to account if they notice that something that might help their learning is going missing. By involving them in the design and delivery of your teaching, you'll help them become more aware of their own habits as students, and get more meaningful summative feedback at the end of the term.