Facilitated Student Feedback to Improve Teaching and Learning
S. L. Stockham and J. F. Amann
From the Departments of Veterinary Pathology (Stockham),
and Veterinary Biomedical Sciences (Amann),
College of Veterinary Medicine,
University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211.
A Norden Distinguished Teacher Award winner once said, "Teaching must come first, it is the reason we are here." (1) If veterinary faculty agree with this statement, then faculty should emphasize all aspects of teaching from planning, to implementation, to evaluations (formative and summative). Also if one accepts the premise that the major goal of an educational institution is to promote positive changes in students, then we must look to students for feedback when we are evaluating our efforts to achieve that goal (2). Student evaluation of teachers is probably the most common form of summative teacher evaluation in our colleges and schools of veterinary medicine. Students can provide valid evaluative information in four areas (3):
- Information about teaching methods --they know what works.
- Fairness of the faculty member in the evaluation/teaching process--students talk to each other and have a good sense of fairness.
- Faculty interest in the student.
- Faculty interest in the content of a course or subject --students like enthusiasm!
Others have argued that students are not a good source of teacher evaluations, but many of the objections are not supported by published data (2, 4-7). We suggest here that students are also an excellent source of formative evaluation for improvement of "attitudinal and motivational goals in education" (2). The formative evaluation of faculty by students is more likely to be successful if facilitated by experienced faculty (3).
Summative and perhaps formative evaluation of teachers, teaching methods, or courses usually occurs at the end of courses when there is little opportunity for students to see or reap benefits from their comments. Also at this time, teachers cannot immediately implement recommended changes. Formative evaluations should occur earlier while there is time to change (4). A mid-course peer consultation procedure was described in 1990 and 1991 as an inexpensive consultation method to improve teaching skills, performance, and outcomes (8, 9). The authors of those reports subsequently published their procedures (10, 11). In the described procedures, a pair of experienced teachers worked together to improve the teaching of one member of the pair. Primary goals of peer consultations were: 1) to provide student and peer evaluations of new or innovative teaching strategies or methods; and 2) to improve teaching by improving interactions between students and faculty. The procedure was to be "aimed at `fine tuning' experienced teachers rather than `rough tuning' the novice." (8) The consultation process arose from work in which the value of student feedback was greatly enhanced when aided by a consultant (12, 13) and was similar to described methods for evaluating teaching by interviewing students as an entire class or using small group methods (14, 15).
There have been several other types of peer consultations described (16, 17) but none of these types emphasized student feedback. We modified the procedures described in the above reports (8, 9) to fit our classroom situations. To attempt to minimize confusion, we chose to call this type of formative evaluation "facilitated student feedback" as this name more accurately described our collaborative efforts. Major goals of our collaboration were to: 1) obtain student opinions on our teaching methods; 2) obtain student recommendations for course and teaching improvements; 3) improve our teaching and thus enhance student learning; 4) enhance interactions between students and faculty; and 5) assess what was learned from the facilitated student feedback and our collaboration.
Figure 1. Steps of Facilitated Student Feedback.
- Facilitator Selection and Preparation
- a. Facilitator recruited and selected.
- b. Teacher and facilitator agree on the terms of confidentiality.
- c. Date for a class interview selected and students informed of the plans.
- d. Teacher informs facilitator of specific or new teaching methods that should be discussed in the class interview.
- e. Facilitator visits a class session prior to scheduled class interview.
- Feedback Session (class interview)
- a. Teacher introduces the facilitator and leaves the room.
- b. Facilitator explains the major purpose of the consultation.
- c. Facilitator emphasizes the confidentiality of the process.
- d. Students brainstorm on the factors or situations that have assisted or enhanced their learning OR inhibited or hindered their learning.
- e. Facilitator records "helps" and "hindrances" obtained from students.
- f. Specific teaching methods that were a concern of the teacher are discussed if not already part of students' ideas.
- g. Students vote for ideas or items that they feel are the most important.
- h. Students recommend how the course can be improved.
- i. Students are selected to form a committee to review and modify the draft report.
- Facilitator's Report
- a. Facilitator writes a draft report.
- b. Student committee reviews draft and recommends changes.
- c. (Option) Facilitator and student committee meet to clarify or revise report.
- d. Facilitator delivers and discusses report with teacher.
- e. (Option) Teacher meets with student committee.
- Teacher's Response
- a. Issues that need to be changed are acknowledged.
- b. Report's recommendations are implemented.
Figure 2. Students' Opinions of the Facilitated Student Feedback Process.
What are your impressions and/or feelings about participating in the process?
- Very helpful as it creates a better learning environment.
- Requires that the class perceive the facilitator to be fair.
- Nice that a professor cares enough about our education to put his head on the block.
- Specific problems in the course can be addressed.
- Very helpful, providing the instructor keeps an open mind about the criticisms.
- Excellent opportunity for changing course when changes can make a difference.
- A lot easier to remember likes and dislikes when other people bring them up.
- Good method of providing suggestions for improvements but also giving positive reinforcement.
- Very impressed that instructor cares enough about our opinion to take a class session to ask.
- Hope that since the teacher initiated the process, suggestions will be followed or considered.
- Will greatly help the teacher to efficiently teach the class.
- Important to get feedback from your peers and not just from students.
- Thank you for caring what we think, we usually get ignored.
How would you say the quality of information you provided in this process differs from what you typically provide on a teacher evaluation questionnaire (TEQ)?
- Allows focus on certain improvements of a course rather than the teacher.
- TEQ is too generic; you can explain exactly what you mean in this process.
- This is both more specific and more comprehensive.
- Typical TEQ questions are useless. This process is far superior to TEQ.
- Able to express opinions better, both individually and as a class.
- This gives our thoughts and ideas not a preformed questionnaire where we are limited.
- Students are more likely to respond truthfully in this type of process.
- We know that specific problems we have are going to be presented directly to the professor.
- The information from this process is more relevant, detailed, and pertinent.
- It helps facilitate more thinking about your instructor's ability.
- Intra-class feedback is good. Quality of information is better because we have more time to think about the best way to word comments.
Would you recommend that other faculty engage in this feedback process?
- 109 yes, 4 no, 14 no response.
Would you please elaborate on this?
- Therapeutic to express your views in a confidential manner.
- You get real answers in this process, not just numbers (0 to 4).
- Students can help a teacher modify his teaching so that he can teach us better.
- Teachers that really care about their teaching effectiveness would readily adopt this, but teachers who don't really care wouldn't.
- I would resent the loss of class time if it was done across the curriculum.
- There are many classes that would benefit from this type of in-depth evaluation.
- Should be mandatory for all faculty involved in teaching.
- Faculty would benefit immensely from this type of process.
- Students must have a positive attitude towards a teacher to learn from him; this process helps form a communication between faculty and students.
- The classes that really need this type of evaluation probably will never get evaluated this way.
Facilitated Student Feedback Process
Facilitated student feedback process can be divided into four steps: facilitator selection and preparation, class feedback session, facilitator's report, and teacher's response (Fig. 1).
Facilitator Selection and Preparation: The facilitator should be an experienced teacher, knowledgeable in basic teaching methods and strategies, and familiar with the feedback process. To promote open communication during the class interview, the students should perceive or know the facilitator to be trustworthy. Under some circumstances, it may be advantageous for the facilitator to be a faculty member from outside the teacher's department or college.
The teacher and facilitator establish a date for a class feedback session that will occur about one-third to one-half way through a course. A course needs to be long enough that students have time to evaluate the teacher who then has time to modify teaching methods. The feedback session should take 45-50 minutes to complete.
Prior to the feedback session, the teacher and facilitator should discuss course goals, objectives, and teaching strategies. If feedback is to evaluate a new teaching method, then the teacher should tell the facilitator about the method and its objectives. The facilitator should visit a class session a few days prior to a scheduled feedback session to become familiar with the teacher's methods and classroom procedures.
Feedback Session: On the day of the feedback session, the teacher introduces the facilitator, assists in preparing the room and passing out the voting materials such as colored dots (18), and then leaves the room. The facilitator explains that the major purpose of the feedback session is to find methods of improving teaching so that learning can be enhanced. The facilitator explains the confidentiality of the process and requests that students not give their names during the feedback session.
The facilitator asks students to write on scrap paper the factors, events, or situations under two categories--those which have helped or assisted in student learning (referred to as "helps"); those which have inhibited or hindered their learning (referred to as "hindrances"). After four minutes, the facilitator asks students to volunteer information from their lists in a brainstorming session. Other roles of the facilitator are to accurately record students' statements, seek clarification when needed, promote informative statements, encourage a balance of "helps" and "hindrances," and encourage participation by a majority of students. The facilitator should not accept statements such as "we like Dr. X" or "we don't like the tests." When such statements are made, students are asked why they like or dislike the topic and how the topic influences their learning.
The facilitator records the students' ideas on large easel pads labeled "helps" and "hindrances." As a sheet is filled, it is taped to a wall and the process continues. When possible, the facilitator groups comments with similar ideas already recorded. If during the first 5-10 minutes the students do not bring up the new teaching method that was discussed by the teacher and facilitator prior to the feedback session, the facilitator asks for feedback on the new method.
After 15-20 minutes of listing "helps" and "hindrances," the facilitator posts the remaining lists on walls where students have access to them. After quickly reviewing the topics, the facilitator instructs students to cast their votes for the topics, events, factors, etc. that have been the most helpful or the greatest hindrance to their learning. Each student votes by placing from one to five colored dots beside their choices; e.g., four green dots for "helps" topic No. 1, one green dot for "helps" topic No. 5, one red dot for "hindrances" topics No's 2, 3, 6, 7, and 9. After students vote, the facilitator quickly tallies results to determine those topics that the class considered to be most helpful or most hindering.
The facilitator then asks students to suggest how the instructor could change his/her teaching methods to improve their learning and requests that suggestions focus on the "hindrance" topics that received the most votes. As students express their opinions, the facilitator records their suggestions, seeks clarification when needed, and promotes participation by as many students as possible.
During the last 5 minutes of the feedback session, a student review committee of 3-5 students is established by volunteering or by lot. The committee will proof read the facilitator's draft report to make sure it accurately reflects ideas and decisions of the feedback session. The facilitator may need to learn the identity of committee members in order that the draft document can be distributed to them.
Facilitator's Report: Soon after the feedback session, the facilitator writes a draft report that includes lists of "helps" and "hindrances," results of class voting, and student recommendations. The facilitator includes a summary that classifies "helps" and "hindrances" into major teaching categories; e.g., teaching materials, methods of teaching, examinations, classroom performance, and course organization. The facilitator adds his/her observations, opinions, and recommendations to the report. The draft is then given to members of the selected student review committee who are asked to recommend revisions if needed. It is important to emphasize that the task of the committee is to determine if the report is an accurate representation of ideas and decisions of the class; it is not an opportunity for students to interject their personal opinions or recommendations. If needed, the facilitator or student committee may meet to clarify or revise certain aspects of the report.
After the committee's ideas are incorporated into the report, the facilitator gives the approved report to the teacher and schedules a meeting with the teacher to discuss and clarify issues so that the teacher understands the students' opinions, decisions, and suggestions. The teacher may meet with the student committee if there are topics which cannot be clarified by the facilitator. If there is such a meeting, the teacher must inform students that comments are to represent the class's opinions and not their personal opinions.
Teacher's Response: The teacher should respond to and thank students for their participation as soon as possible after receiving the report. This response can be oral, written, or a combination of the two. The time interval from the feedback session to teacher's response should be short (less than 1 week). Whenever possible, the teacher should implement student recommendations that will enhance their learning for the remainder of the course. For those suggestions which cannot be implemented immediately, students deserve to know if the teacher will attempt to implement them and if not, why not. If the teacher believes that a "hindrance" could be addressed in another way, he/she should state so. The teacher's response should not be a list of excuses, but plans to attempt to improve the education of current and future students.
Students' Opinions of the Feedback Process
At the end of our reciprocated efforts, students were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding the feedback process as recommended by previous authors (8, 9). The questions and examples of the students' responses are reported in Figure 2.
Conclusions and Discussion
Facilitated student feedback is a technique for improving the teaching/learning relationship and assumes the following principles: 1) learning is an active process and student involvement is essential; 2) student perception of and interaction with the teacher is integral to the process of learning; 3) it is important for the teacher to see him/herself through the eyes of the student in order to build on the strengths of the relationship and correct the deficiencies; 4) students can make important contributions to the teaching/learning relationship and the teacher must be receptive to these ideas; 5) teaching and learning involve a dynamic relationship that can and should change with time and experience. There is no one "correct" way for teaching and learning. One should strive to find new and better methods.
A critical step in facilitated student feedback is the brainstorming at the beginning of the feedback session. Students must be given time to think about and then write their own opinions and ideas before the facilitator asks for verbal responses. This time allows each student to solidify a few ideas. Then, the facilitator must strive to obtain ideas from many students and not allow a few vocal students to dominate the process. Students have repeatedly stated that once they started hearing the ideas of other students, those ideas triggered new ideas regarding aspects of the course that helped or hindered their learning.
From our experiences, the major benefits of the facilitated student feedback process are as follows: it allows assessment of new teaching strategies and provides information to justify mid-course modifications; it identifies helpful teaching methods which then justifies continuance of those methods; it identifies hindrances to student learning at a time when adjustments or modifications can be made; it allows students to learn that classmates are having the same problems with certain teaching methods; it fosters learning another instructor's teaching methods and concepts; and it increases the teacher's rapport with students. Rapport is enhanced because students feel that their opinions are respected and count for something (students are treated as responsible adults). The teacher appears to be less an adversary and more a partner in the student-teacher relationship. The process promotes both team work and enthusiasm in the classroom and thus enhances active learning.
Facilitated student feedback is not without disadvantages. When courses are shorter than 8 weeks, the full benefit of the process will probably not be attained. The process is more difficult in team-taught vs. single instructor courses. If the team-taught course truly is team-taught, then the team should get valuable feedback about the team's success. However, if the course is "turn-taught," there may not be enough continuity in the course for this process to be valuable. Also, only faculty and teaching methods of the first third or half of the course would be evaluated unless a feedback session was repeated later.
The facilitated student feedback process may further polarize student attitudes towards some faculty if all faculty do not participate. Also, students may lose faith in the teacher if recommendations are not implemented. This potential problem was best expressed by a student who said "It's a good idea, but doesn't mean anything if nothing changes."
As much of the procedure's success depends on getting opinions from many students, the class feedback session is more difficult with larger classes. Feedback sessions could be modified by randomly selecting a small group of students to meet with a facilitator outside of the regular class period (8, 10). Initially students may not see the value of the extra effort. However, after one or two successful sessions that lead to improved teaching methods, veterinary students would no doubt be more willing to participate in future feedback sessions.
Facilitated student feedback is a formative, not a summative, evaluation method. It should not be used for gathering information for promotional, tenure, or salary considerations because the objectivity and openness of participants may diminish. The emphasis in facilitated student feedback is to improve teaching and learning. A major use of facilitated student feedback may be to assess new teaching methods. As with any change, changing teaching methods may not have the desired outcome. Teachers may not take the chance of pursuing innovative teaching methods if there is a chance that failure would become part of permanent faculty record.
From our experiences with the facilitated student feedback process, they should not be used as a substitute for formal course or teacher evaluations. We concur with Tiberius and Janzen (8) that the procedure should be "aimed at `fine tuning' experienced teachers rather than `rough tuning' the novice." If there are several problems in a course, correcting those problems might require more effort than the described facilitated student feedback process.
We strongly recommend that faculty participate in a facilitated student feedback session. It provides a method to improve teaching and thus student learning. Also, faculty members will learn things about teaching and learning whether they are the facilitator or the teacher. Facilitated student feedback does take time to be successful and fruitful, but it seems to fit the adage--"you get out of it what you put into it."
Through the described facilitated student feedback process, timely and pertinent student opinions and recommendations for course and teaching improvements were obtained. The product of the feedback process justified mid-course modifications or continued use of new teaching strategies. Interactions between students and faculty were enhanced by emphasizing the importance of student learning and placing a high value on student input. We concluded that the combination of these accomplishments improved our teaching and enhanced student learning.
One of our goals was to assess what was learned about the feedback process. The midcourse evaluations permitted changes when changes could benefit the evaluating students and thus provided an incentive for students to participate in the process. We were impressed by the power of a system whereby young adults are placed in a position to influence and improve their education. In previous and traditional summative evaluations, students communicated that their opinions were not valued and concerns were rarely addressed. Thus, completion of the evaluations usually was not worthwhile.
We learned more about our own teaching methods by observing the teaching of a colleague. The content of our courses was different, but methods used to promote learning were not so different.
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