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How to Get (and Use) Candid Feedback in Course Evaluations

Biologist Dr. Mike Trombley shares why he uses anonymous short-essay course evaluations and how he gets honest answers anyway.

Biologist Dr. Mike Trombley shares why he uses anonymous short-essay course evaluations and how he gets honest answers anyway.

Biology lecturer Dr. Mike Trombley is not immune to criticism. In fact, he thrives on it. That is why, at the end of each semester, he invites students to tell him what they really think of his immunology course. In fact, their responses have resulted in a somewhat shocking change in his approach: He no longer ends the semester with the usual closed-book, cumulative final!

“Immunology is very, very detail oriented,” says Trombley. “I almost felt an obligation to keep it at a high level of difficulty, just because that’s what it had always been.” Then he asked students about this approach in his end-of-semester course evaluation. “Students said they were losing sight of the bigger picture, even though they could name all of these minute details.” As a result, he now offers an end-of-semester Final Assessment project, which tests students on their ability to call up information that they learned throughout the semester and then apply it properly.

However, to get this kind of specific feedback, Trombley first had to create a new type of course evaluation. “[The school uses] a numerical system, and I didn’t find that to be helpful. Getting a rating of 4 out of 5—quantitative data—doesn’t tell you much,” Trombley says. “So I developed my own student feedback system.”

Below, he shares what he asks, why he makes them put their name on their feedback, and how he convinces students to be candid in their responses.

Tips for eliciting (and applying) student feedback

Trombley says he has become a better teacher because of student input. The comments have changed from anonymous numerical ratings to thoughtful remarks that have positively impacted his teaching style.

Here are some of his tips for getting meaningful feedback in student evaluations—and deciding what to do with the results.

Do not ask for anonymous feedback—make them “own” their opinions

“In previous assessments, there were some comments in which people were clearly just upset or trying to troll—to antagonize,” says Trombley. “I figured, if you’re going to say something that’s going to have an impact on my class—potentially my career—you should stand by what you say.” Of course, he knew that students would fear repercussions that might affect their grade. To encourage them to be honest, Trombley also told them that he would not read the evaluations until the semester was over.

Keep the course evaluation short—but ask pointed questions

Trombley asks just four questions that cover course material, lecture style, and other activities:

  1. What are your thoughts on this class? Were there topics you wanted to know more about or thought I should have spent more time on? Was there anything in the course you would change related to content?
  2. How was I as a lecturer? What are my strengths/things I do well/should keep doing? What are my weaknesses/things I need to improve on? Were there any teaching tools/techniques you recommend I add?
  3. Please comment on activities other than lecture or exams: “Big Picture” review days, immunodeficiency project, vaccine education material, Final Assessment, etc. – were they useful? Effective? Anything to change?
  4. Do you have any other thoughts or comments? Please elaborate/explain things. Thanks!

Use student feedback to confirm or deny your suppositions

Trombley used to give an assignment for which each student wrote a paper and did a presentation on an immune system disease. He dropped the written portion as the class grew to nearly 150 students. “And each semester, I just kept feeling like the presentations were busywork,” he says.

When students reported that they felt the same way, he changed the assignment format to a small-group disease-research project. Each group’s results become part of a larger class document that is the basis for a quiz. “So they’re more engaged in the material, rather than passively listening to a talk or completing mundane worksheets,” Trombley explains.

Use your learning objectives to identify valid student critiques

Of course, not every student critique is valid. “I get a lot of ‘Your tests are too hard; your multiple-choice questions aren’t fair,’” he says. “When you see a lot of those key words: too hard, not fair, too much work—that feels like students just complaining.”

Trombley suggests asking yourself, “Is my current teaching aligning with my goals? Is the student’s suggestion going to help me accomplish my learning objectives, or does their comment seem more motivated by self-interest?”

Consider what is holding you back from making changes to the course

Trombley says that fear of trying something new can be the biggest roadblock to making changes. He acknowledges that some things may be decided by the department (for example, the same cumulative final may be required for all intro biology courses). “But in a course that you have control over, ask yourself what’s holding you back,” he recommends. For example, he worried that switching to an open-book final might make him seem like an “easy” lecturer. So he sought (and got) the support of the Biology Department chair and made the switch.

Let students know that their feedback inspires you

To show students just how much he values their opinions, Trombley gives them examples of feedback he received from prior evaluations. “I make a point to tell them the things that I have changed, so that they realize I’m not just having them do this for fun,” he says. “I really do listen and value what they say. I think that makes them take ownership in the course. Students take pride in that.”

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