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.
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:
- The belief that students will not be honest if they have to put their name on it;
- Students will be made to feel uncomfortable (related to 1. but slightly different IMO)
- 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.