Tagged: feedback

8 Stories about feedback

In response to a previous post of mine, “Stories about aims on the board,” a friend brought the LOLs when she suggested I state the aims at the start of my post. I thought about doing  so for this post but no “by the end of this post, readers will be able to” came to mind. I suppose my personal goal is simply for me to share the stories, which might, in turn, help readers sharpen their thinking on this topic. Or not. It was fun for me to think about these stories and how the have impacted my thoughts on getting and responding to feedback from students. In any case, I hope you enjoy the stories.

(I do apologize because I think some of these stories have been mentioned already on this blog or in various places around Asia)

  1. In a previous job the end of term evaluations were really a big deal.  As much of a big deal as Ron Burgundy. These evaluations were among the primary determiners of  teachers being able to stay employed at this particular institution. One term, I decided I would be sure to get a perfect score in the only question on the survey that was not subjective or based on the opinion of the students. Or so I thought. Question 5 dealt with the teacher being on time for the lessons and I endeavored to be in the classroom 5 minutes early and ready to start exactly on time. However, my score on Question 5 was not perfect. This results of my experiment were not exactly surprising to me or my peers but they were very interesting. It became even more interesting when a colleague who was, shall we say, not so concerned about starting on time got a higher average score on this question than I did. Very interesting indeed.
  2. Another classic feedback story for me in that particular institution was when I got nearly perfect scores (on every question) from one group. I knew that I hadn’t done my best and I was not very happy with my teaching or my attitude with this particular group. To my mind I deserved the poor scores which I felt certain I would get. I was shocked when I saw the very high numbers from this group because I felt I had failed them and myself. After I got over my surprise and tried to figure out what had happened, the most reasonable explanation for the high scores was that one student in the group, the oldest and most influential student, was in my class the previous term and we had a very good relationship. I remain convinced to this day that he persuaded his classmates to give me high scores. This was based on my relationship with him and my good work the previous term but not what I did with that particular group. What a strange way to evaluate teachers.
  3. I once killed a man with my disclosure about not reading end of term official feedback.
  4. In my first few months as a teacher trainer I was faced with a predicament. My colleague was a new trainer too, and he was also new to Korea and there was a learning curve about Korea and the teaching and learning environment and everything else. To make matters worse before we started the job we were told there would be a curriculum for us to follow. There was no such thing so we were pretty much making things up as we went along. The course was supposed to focus on a mix of English and Teaching skills and knowledge. My colleague decided to do a strand on pronunciation, which included learning the IPA including sounds that were particularly challenging for Korean students (and as it turned out Korean English teachers). There were some complaints about this strand. The complaints went to me and my colleague but mostly to the training center admin. We had a meeting with the director and she encouraged (read: demanded) him to stop the strand. I didn’t think it was proper to change in the middle based on “hallway feedback” from just a few participants. Regretfully, I was not assertive or convincing enough and he acquiesced to the encouragement.** When we got the final feedback for the course (which humility almost prevents me from mentioning won a national award)  the most frequent feedback was that we should have kept going with the pronunciation strand. Most noteworthy for me was a comment that went something like, “I didn’t even really like the pronunciation thing but I think you should have kept going. You are the trainers and if you decided it was needed then we should have respected your thinking and gone along with it. I was very disappointed we didn’t complete this strand.” Although it was not an ideal situation I felt like it was a very valuable learning experience in many ways.
  5. At the same training center six months later the training center director grabbed my arm in the hallway and said that there had been complaint about something or other. I asked her how many complaints had been received. She said 3 (of 33). I said with a smile, “Great, only 3 of 33! We need to keep on doing exactly what we are doing. We are collecting feedback weekly and hopefully these issues will come up at that time. Thank you very much for the concern. I think we can surely handle this as a group. Thanks!”
  6. In that same course my colleague and I collected feedback using different colored papers and we were very impressed with the level of detail the participants gave. I think this was based on the fact we had done it before and that participants knew we valued the feedback and were very willing to consider what they had written and possibly make changes. I also think our feedback on previous feedback was useful in helping participants see what sort of feedback was useful for us. I didn’t necessarily agree with all the feedback we received but it gave me a glimpse into the minds of the participants. It might be pure speculation at this point (quite a few years later) but during the course there were some questions about certain projects we asked participants to work on. Spending 20-30 minutes on the theoretical background for what we were doing  (and helping participants see that TBL wasn’t something we just made up) seemed to dramatically increase buy in. I was very pleased we got the feedback relating to their confusion and was very happy to have the chance to address it before it was too late.
  7. On that very same training course the most common comment in the end of course feedback  was about how impressive it was for the trainers to sit down and calmly discuss the feedback we had received and to make changes based on it but to also explain why we weren’t making changes and to share new ideas for participants to get the most out of the course. I think one example was about participants wanting us to correct their journals for grammar mistakes. This was very far from our intention with that component of the course and we said we wouldn’t do that. We did say that we’d be happy to correct 10 sentences a week from each participant on sentences they weren’t sure about. From reading the comments at the end of the course I got the impression the participants were happy to be heard and happy to have their requests dealt with in such a way. This fits in very well with my idea of such feedback as a starting point for a conversation. Some of the teachers remarked that they’d love to create such channels of communication with their students.**
  8. In my current place of employment they ask me if there are any students I’d like to prevent from completing the end the term official feedback. I can’t prevent any student, just the ones that didn’t come to class enough. I was fascinated by this question the first time I received it. I think I have actually only “banned” one student from completing the survey (he actually literally never came to class). This policy gave me something to think about but I think in principle I agree that it’s better to get feedback from the students that attend class.

Thanks for reading. I do hope it was mildly entertaining and/or gave you something to think about. These stories are sort of related to my upcoming presentation at JALT, which I mentioned in my most recent post. Any comments or stories welcome.

Extra Notes:

*I have always regretted not being more forceful day and it was a valuable learning experience which has caused me to be a bit more eager to speak up in such situations and a lot more eager to use whatever capital I have developed.

**This was like music to my ears but I realize it is not always easy or comfortable to do so. I think in some places requesting such feedback can be taken for weakness or as the teacher not knowing what she is doing. This is unfortunate but I don’t think it means it’s impossible. The example that always springs to mind is pairwork. There are many places where pairwork is outside of the norm but I think many teachers believe in it and work at it and implement pairwork in their classes. Surely this is not always 100% comfortable for those students unfamiliar with it but teachers push through. Why? And why can’t they when it comes to feedback? Is collecting feedback that much more uncomfortable for the students? Is there another reason at play here?  Maybe teachers don’t value feedback or don’t hold the belief that it can be beneficial to them and their students. If that is the case, I can’t really argue with the belief. What I can partially argue with is the cop out that collecting feedback will be uncomfortable and should then be avoided at all costs.  Well this note is turning into a mini-rant so I will stop there.

 

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.