Why I (often) prefer non-anonymous feedback

Nononymous feedback?

I think most teachers have faced the situation when they got generally feedback back from a class but there was one student who gave less than favorable comments or had a negative impression of what went on in class. Which feedback do we usually remember? It seems like the negative feedback is the one that tends to stick in our brains and craws.  What if I told you the student who left the scathing comment was only attending his 4th class out of a possible 16? Would that change your mind about the feedback and let you sleep a bit more peacefully? It would for me. Now, I fully realize that peaceful sleep is not exactly the purpose of collecting such feedback but I do think it can be all too easy for teachers to get  bent out of shape about negative feedback. I personally like to know who it is coming from. While there are surely drawbacks to collecting non-anonymous feedback I think it is often worth it. For me, anyway. Below I hope to share some of the reasons why.

Image liberated from
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AntiAnonymous.jpg
under a Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

 

Let’s talk about the drawbacks first because I can already imagine some readers might be getting all “yeah but” with the idea of non-anonymous feedback at this point. I racked my brain thought for a few a minutes about the reasons it seems most teachers seem to favor anonymous feedback from students. Some ideas I came up with were:

  1. The belief that students will not be honest if they have to put their name on it;
  2. Students will be made to feel uncomfortable (related to 1. but slightly different IMO)
  3. Anonymous feedback is what I always do and that is how I was trained. That’s just the way it is done.

(I asked a question on Twitter and the additional answer I got was cultural differences which might relate most closely to point 2.)

As regular readers might expect, point 3 is not something  I will seriously consider. Points 1 and 2 do warrant a closer look, though.  I agree on the point about the expectation of honesty  in point 1. Yet, just recently, I heard a few teachers complaining that the feedback they were collecting was all the same and was sugar coated to the same unhelpful and unhealthy level. In these cases can we assume that the feedback would become even less helpful if students were asked to add their names? I can’t imagine so.

The comfort factor is another legitimate concern from my view. Sure. I get it. Really I do. I feel like maybe part of the discomfort is that in contexts where students are graded they might be wary of revenge repercussions from the teacher. I can see where students would be coming from in this case but I also think teachers can alleviate these concerns by making it as clear as possible that the feedback is truly for the teacher to help the students and is strictly for the teacher. I think these concerns are often similar with collecting any feedback from students but are just magnified when and if the anonymity is taken away.

I can surely understand these feelings of potential discomfort for (for both the student and the teacher) and the desire to avoid it.  I also think English teachers often ask students to do lots of things that are not exactly comfortable. Also, just the act of asking for feedback might be out of the realm of experience for many students but many teachers I talk to value the feedback enough to plough through the discomfort and collect the feedback. I guess my simple question here is that if it is uncomfortable anyway and we teachers still go ahead and collect feedback why not make it a bit more uncomfortable and collect a bit better and more useful feedback? I don’t know, it seems worth the risk to me at this point, especially if teachers are not happy with the quality of the feedback they are getting.

I already mentioned the idea of knowing who the student is but I’d like to expand on this a bit here. I think there are some important things to consider. If we know who said what then we can evaluate the comments on a different level. I agree that every student’s opinion is important. While prepared to say that every student is a special delicate snowflake that should be treated as such I am also happy to say I value the opinion of the student that comes to every class and works hard differently than the opinion of the student that doesn’t. The argument could be made that what the teacher does or doesn’t do prevents the chronically absent students from coming to class but I am not convinced of this. I think it usually takes a few lessons for committed students to decide they are no longer committed. What I am trying to say here is that not all feedback is equal and I believe it can be helpful when evaluating and thinking about feedback to consider who said it.

I think even more useful than the ability to evaluate the feedback based on the person giving it is the options knowing who said what opens up for dealing with the feedback. Maybe there is something we can address with that specific student in a private chat (yes, also potentially uncomfortable but also potentially valuable). Maybe certain small changes can be made specifically for one student.  Maybe efforts can be made to show one student that changes are being made. Maybe a dialog with one unhappy student can  open up from collecting non-anonymous feedback. I think lots of possibilities spring up from just asking students to include their names.

I keep accentuating  the negative here, which I think is so easy to do but unfortunate.  I also think it is nice to know what is working in class, and from my view knowing what each student thinks is working for them is a very nice start. Last year, I had a student that always seemed a bit disconnected in certain more competitive activities. I guessed she didn’t like competition. and I even scaled back some of these activities. It wasn’t until I got feedback from her wishing there was more competitive activities I realized I had misread her feelings about such activities. n this case knowing who was writing the feedback was immensely helpful. Had I not known it was this particular student the impact on my decisions would have been very different.

It might just be my experience and perception but I also think the quality of feedback improves when students add their names to it. I think they tend to refrain from mentioning some of the useless things they might mention if the feedback were anonymous. In previous jobs I have felt students sometimes viewed official feedback as their turn to get their say and their chance for revenge for all the evaluation they had been receiving. Of course some remedies for this are to get feedback regularly and to help students see that the feedback is designed to help the teacher help them more. Another remedy, I believe, is just having students say who they are and “own” the feedback. I honestly don’t think much is lost by doing this, especially when the trust is there that the teacher won’t use it against them and students are aware the feedback is actually for the teacher to help them more. My thought is the moment students attach their name to what they are saying the more thought they put into it, which actually makes for better feedback. I don’t remember getting much feedback about things that were completely out of my control (like stinky bathrooms) when I asked students to include their names.

So, I often prefer nononymous feedback because I think the feedback is of a higher quality and because it opens up more options for me as a teacher. I am aware it might not suit everyone and certainly aware of the drawbacks but I am usually pleased when I decide to skip the anonymous route when collecting feedback.

I guess I have said all I have to say about that.
So what do you think?
What reasons for anonymous feedback did I miss?
Has your mind (and thus your teaching and thus your life) been completely changed by the above?

Links and more:

This link from @anthonyteacher caught my attention and is related to end of term evaluations.

Here is a nice collection of thoughts on collecting feedback from teachers around the world. This Lino was started by Anna Loseva (aka A-chan). Anna, myself and Kevin Stein  will be presenting about feedback and reflecting and reflecting on feedback from students at the upcoming JALT conference. If you have any links or ideas to share I’d very happily receive them.

I think the blog posts from Josette LeBlanc (how not to initiate feedback, hallway feedback, and reflecting and responding to feedback, and Ceri Jones (end of course feedback) mentioned in the lino were particularly noteworthy. I thank them for writing and sharing such insightful posts.

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13 comments

  1. Pingback: Student Feedback: A Trivial or Important Issue? | ELT Experiences
  2. swisssirja

    Loved it! Again. Before I give my own humble view on feedback I just wanted to share a tiny impression I get when reading your posts. Somehow I always imagine you writing with enormous pleasure, quite coolly and always with a twinkle in the eye and a mild grin on the face :-)
    Anyway, when it comes to feedback in my own classes, there’s no possibility of staying anonymous because by the time students get down to writing them I know their handwriting so well ;-)
    But there’s also something else, and this is a strong echo of Josette’s post on feedback – when I prepare the feedback forms they are always in the “I” mode, i.e. I feel, I think, I had etc For instance, I would ask students to finish stuff like ” this semester I am happy / unhappy with my work because … ”
    I started this kind of feedback when I realized it wasn’t just about me and my lessons, it was also their work and effort, and I wanted to make them think critically about their own performance before blaming someone else’s.
    Once I started these reflections, the feedback has definitely become more substantial and I don’t feel any pressure any more, rather lots of curiosity about their take on things.
    Cheers!

  3. Rizza Thomas

    Thanks for this insightful post! I admit that I’m uncomfortable receiving negative comments. But sometimes I remind myself that I have to be professional in receiving constructive criticism. I just have to remember to take the meat and remove the bones. Although, sometimes my attitude towards the student is affected but thanks to your article I now know better.

  4. Christopher Miller (@Christo63789662)

    One thing I thought about while reading this would be the value in priming students to receive feedback prior to soliciting. For example, spending 5-10 minutes showing good and less desirable illustrations of feedback, mention the range of topics you are interested. In my university days. I just remember teachers saying general comments like be specific, and I use this stuff…but not devoting prep time to modeling expectations, which might help enormously. Have you ever coached your students in providing feedback in anyway?

    • mikecorea

      Thank you for the comment. I think the priming that you mentioned is a really important aspect and something I might have not given enough attention to in the post. I’d love to say more about this in a future post, but some of the most useful feedback I have ever received was after lots of priming and discussion about what makes good feedback and what is useful. If my memory is correct I even gave some examples and asked students to rate what might be helfpul or not before starting. Another thing I didn’t really mention in the post is that the type of questions we ask will surely determine the specificity of the feedback we receive. In his most recent post, Kevin Stein touches on getting more specific feedback with time and practice: http://theotherthingsmatter.blogspot.jp/2013/10/givinggetting-good-feedback-takes-fill.html One of my takeaways from this is that continual feedback can also lead to more specific and helpful feedback. Thanks very much for the comments. Much appreciated.

  5. Pingback: Student feedback for EFL teachers: Michael Grif...
  6. Pingback: 8 Stories about feedback | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  7. David Harbinson

    Mike, I’ll preface this reply by saying that I don’t actually (am not allowed) to collect feedback from my students in such a formal way. That being said, I would agree with you though that as a provider of feedback, I always liked to give my name. I wanted whoever was to read it to to know that I wrote it. For my MA research, I used a questionnaire to gather data from some students, and used Dornyei’s book, ‘Questionnaires in second language acquisition’ as a resource. Dornyei has some interesting points on anonymity, and while it is aimed at collecting data for research, I think some of his points are interesting for collecting feedback. He suggests a couple of strategies for ‘getting around anonymity’. One in particular that could be quite useful, doesn’t actually offer full anonymity, but is based on the idea that students might not like directly identifying themselves by writing their name, which Dornyei describes as a “salient and potentially loaded task”. One of his ideas is to include a unique pre-printed code on each questionnaire, and then make a seating plan of the students and later match the questionnaires to the students based on where they are sitting. Of course, you should always let the students know about this beforehand, but it means that they won’t be required to directly identify themselves. Perhaps not something that teachers who, like you, prefer to collect non-anonymously would want to do, but if there are others who are not quite convinced yet of the non-anonymous method they might find it a satisfactory compromise. You could also take it a little further and attach the identification code as a sticker (or other attachment) that students can peel off if they genuinely want to remain anonymous. I have a feeling that most probably wouldn’t.

    • mikecorea

      This is among my favorite comments of all time. Thanks for getting in touch. I’d love to read what you’ve recently written regarding feedback. Hope all is well.

  8. Pingback: Feedback. My turn. | Ann Loseva's Space
  9. kipper

    Just my thoughts… As a teacher, open and candid feedback would be ideal, but I don’t think is realistic, especially in Korea given their culture to want to avoid open confrontation. As a student who has taken many teacher surveys, I would NEVER leave any negative feedback for the teacher unless the survey were 100% anonymous. There would be a chance of my having that teacher again. The repercussions as a student are too great to leave honest, negative feedback on a non-anonymous survey. While in an ideal world, if I were to leave non-anonymous feedback, the teacher and I would sit down and talk about it like adults. We don’t live in an ideal world. People hold grudges. Peoples’ egos get bruised. For that reason, anonymous surveys are the way to go in my opinion.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it. I hope I was careful enough in the post to show non-anonymous is not always going to be the best choice. I think the issues you have raised are certainly valid and worth thinking about. I also think there is room for open and honest communication in this far from ideal world. I think like anything else new, different and scary it might take some time and training and development of trust. Maybe for some (many? most?) the necessary investment is not worth the possible improvement in feedback.

      I think I have been lucky enough to in situations (as a teacher and trainer) where people (I should mention I am talking about grownups here) felt comfortable enough to be open and honest (or at least convince me they were being so) and maybe that is because I am not usually in much of a position to offer repercussions…. or maybe because it is obvious that I won’t or obvious I am really looking to improve. Well it is obviously a complicated thing and I thank you once again for the comments.

      Ah, one last thing I must mention. I collected feedback twice in the last few weeks and both were done anonymously.

      Thanks again for commenting.

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