Most universities use final course evaluations to solicit feedback from students. The results of these evaluations can be used to inform the next offering of the course, as well as—ideally in conjunction with many other forms of evidence of teaching effectiveness—the career trajectory of the instructor.
How do you interpret summative feedback and use it to improve your teaching? We have identified four main challenges that teachers may face when interpreting end-of-course feedback from students:
- Diverse opinions. As is expected, the students who take your course may have a range of opinions about the coursework, delivery, reading materials, etc. There will often be discrepancies in what students think worked and did not work. It is your job as a teacher to bear this diversity in mind when analyzing summative feedback.
- Personalized instruction. Put simply, students may have different reasons for investing in the course. One of the main reasons is the teacher. Students are more likely to commit to, actively engage with, and enjoy a course if their teacher is demanding but personable. This evaluation of a course decreases if the teacher is considered hostile or disinterested, for example.
- Positive and negative feedback. Instead of focusing on either positive or negative feedback, it is important to consider the range of responses students provide. You can then decide which feedback to incorporate based on the content of the feedback, rather than whether it is favorable or not.
- Teaching norms. Situating your teaching in the context of your discipline is vital. It is also in the context of your discipline that you should assess the effectiveness of your teaching. To do so, consider what the standards of teaching are within your discipline, and analyze the feedback you receive based on those standards. Such standards will also speak to what level and kind of teaching is expected of you depending on the stage of your teaching career.
It is important to be aware of how students perceive your teaching. If you are struggling with how to interpret student feedback, it is worthwhile to consult other teachers within your discipline or other faculty within your institution, and to try to build a support network of colleagues, mentors, and other peers who are able to help you maintain a healthy perspective on your development as a teacher.
As a teacher, it is important to be as open to feedback as you hope your students will be. While not all feedback may be given with the aim of being constructive, and it is easy to take feedback personally, it is worth analyzing all the feedback you receive to determine what you can learn from it. Continued analysis of the feedback you receive will encourage regular reflection on your own teaching, allowing you to hone your skills as a reflective practitioner.
Stephen Brookfield’s 1995 book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, can help teachers think about the value of collating and applying lessons from all these different sources of feedback to improve their practice. He discusses four lenses through which you can view your teaching, which summarize the main ideas in these notes. The lenses are:
- From your own self-reflection;
- From what the students say;
- From what your peers observe; and
- From your engagement with the scholarly literature in higher education.
According to Brookfield, becoming a successful teacher means collecting feedback and ideas from those sources, applying it to develop teaching methods and goals, and documenting your growth as a teacher over time.