Classroom feedback

Published in Tertangala (University of Wollongong Undergraduate Students' Association), Issue 4, 2007, pp. 46-47

Brian Martin

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You're sitting in a lecture, thinking "I don't understand the point of this." Or in the lab, thinking "These instructions aren't clear enough." Or preparing for an essay, thinking "This is pointless." Or in any of them, thinking "This is boring."

What can you do about it?

The easy option is to do nothing. Obviously the lecturers don't care, otherwise they'd do something about it. So just carry on. And gripe.

But think about it from your lecturer's point of view. They're standing up giving this lecture, as well as they know how, and nobody has complained. In fact, few students ever give any feedback about a lecture. So how's the lecturer to know that anything's wrong?

Someone has to say something. Why not you? But what's the best way to do it?

Hypothetically, you could go up afterwards and say "That was a lousy lecture." This might be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't give any guidance to your lecturer on how to improve. You need to be specific. So you could say "Could you give some examples about applying the theory you mentioned at the end?" Or "Could you speak a bit more slowly?" Or "Could you tell the noisy group up the back to shut up?"

If you're really brave, you could raise your hand during the lecture and ask questions. Other students might appreciate it. And the lecturer might as well.

You might worry that if you criticise anything, the lecturer will penalise you. That's possible, and it does occur, but not as often as you might imagine. Lecturers are busy with research, supervision, meetings, seminars as well as their teaching, not to mention life outside uni. They are professionals, and want to maintain their reputation. Being seen to take it out on a poor student is not a wise idea. Finally, some lecturers will appreciate feedback.

But you're right, there is a risk. Lecturers are like other people: some have thin skins and some are vindictive. You need to tread carefully until you know how your lecturer is likely to respond.

A safer road is to give supportive feedback. The lecture might have been dead boring, but there was one worthwhile bit, the photos. So go up afterwards and say "I really liked that segment about the photos. I hope you'll include more things like that."

This sort of feedback is powerful for two reasons. By making it positive, you encourage the lecturer to be receptive, unlike criticisms, which trigger defensiveness. Secondly, you've made your comments specific. The lecturer knows exactly what worked for you and hence knows it's likely to be worth doing again.

Highly specific positive feedback is a potent tool. "I liked it when you posed the three curly questions at the beginning." "Your handout was excellent in highlighting the key points." "When you explained your thinking in solving equation 3, it really helped me to understand." By focusing on good points, and being specific, you can gradually shift teachers to more effective practices without raising hackles.

There's one big obstacle to giving useful feedback to your teachers: fellow students. Everyone walks out of class at the end. Staying behind to talk to the teacher can be seen as sucking up. How can you explain it to your friends, who've gone off without you?

You might visit your teachers during their office hours, or to just drop by. Even easier is to email a few comments. You can take your time getting your words just right.

Offering specific supportive feedback is likely to be effective, but is not guaranteed to lead to change. Your teacher may have a lot of experience and know that some things work better than others, overall. After all, there are lots of students, and what you like may not be what other students like. In addition, there are all sorts of regulations covering the syllabus and assessment, so changing may not be a realistic option.

On the other hand, maybe your teacher is simply resistant to change or is so overcommitted in other activities that improving teaching is off the radar, feedback or not. Maybe your teacher persists in doing things in a damaging, counterproductive way. How can you break through this resistance?

It's definitely worthwhile checking your views with other students in the class, and discussing tactics to improve things. You might go in a group to see your teacher. But remember, if you go with criticisms only, this is likely to make your teacher defensive. Go along with some suggestions for improvement.

Another option is to express your views on those end-of-session evaluations of teaching. But this is too late to have any impact on the class. Furthermore, formal evaluations only give ratings on general questions, such as "I became more enthusiastic about this subject as a result of the lectures." But suppose a lecturer gets a low score on this question. What then? There's no guidance on how to improve. The formal evaluations do not give specifics, unless you write in comments.

Then there's the option of going straight to a higher authority, a head of department or school, the dean of the faculty or the dean of students. This escalates the matter enormously. It's advisable only after you've repeatedly tried direct approaches to your teacher. If you have copies of emails to which your teacher has responded inappropriately or not at all, then you have a much better case for taking the matter further.

Think of it from your teacher's point of view. If you've never said anything along the way but then complain to someone higher up, it looks like a personal attack. When under attack, academics, like anyone else, prepare to resist, not to think creatively and enthusiastically about solutions. Formal complaints should be a last resort and perhaps not used at all. They are unlikely to bring about a timely improvement and often lead to more grief than relief.

If there's something really serious happening, that's another story. There are cases in which teachers engage in personal abuse, racism, plagiarism of student essays for professional advancement, and blatant bias for a variety of reasons. To address such serious matters, you should proceed very carefully. Collect iron-clad data, build alliances with other students, consult with independent academics and learn about the dynamics of whistleblowing before taking action.

My focus here is not on serious abuses but rather on the routine yet vital issue of helping teachers do better. For this, personal approaches are likely to be most effective. So get up your nerve and make contact!

Professor Brian Martin is in the Arts Faculty. He is also on the national committee of Whistleblowers Australia.

Thanks to Kate Bowles for helpful comments.