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Making Feedback Matter

As teachers, we spend countless hours staying up late, reading essays, and making comments to help our students improve. We walk a delicate line, wanting

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Oh, how the tables do turn! Each semester, after quizzing, testing, and otherwise grading our students, they get to return the favor and rate their professors, and some of them can be harsher than we are on our most critical days. Because administrators incorporate these ratings in their evaluations of us, they can't be ignored. Rather than wallowing in the sorrows of negative reviews, we must accept it for what it is: feedback. And although we should not in any way compromise our principles or the course content to get better ratings, there are actions that don't undermine our integrity and do positively influence the end-of-course ratings. I'd like to suggest several that have improved my ratings. Be transparent about your grading methods. It's my opinion that students should never be surprised by their grades in a course. Whenever I give an assignment, no matter how small, I provide instructions in writing, a point value, and a due date. I'm a huge fan of rubrics and always take time to help students understand and interpret them. Examples posted on the course website can demonstrate what you're looking for in assignments. I work hard to return papers in a timely manner and share my deadlines with students so that they know when to expect the feedback. Most online grading systems make it easy for students to monitor their progress throughout the semester. By removing the mystery from my grading system, I have consistently received high scores from students on the applicable questions on the evaluation form. Make lesson planning a top priority. “Winging it” may work for some, but it certainly doesn't work for me. I need to walk into the classroom with the learning objectives clearly in mind and my materials prepared. Granted, teachers need to be flexible and able to take advantage of those unexpected teaching moments, but I believe that preplanning still allows for wiggle room and spontaneous responses. If students see us organized and ready each day, they will likely evaluate us highly on those questions. Use the language that appears on the course evaluation forms. While this may sound like selling out, it's not. You're not begging students to give you better reviews (shudder). You're using language that helps them understand how your teaching methods will be described on the course evaluations. When you talk about “course objectives” and “learning outcomes,” students will become familiar with the terms and can more easily connect the dots between what you do and what the rating form asks if you've done. Obviously, this language should only be used where and when it's appropriate; don't use the words without the proper context. Be open to suggestions, but also take criticism with a grain of salt. Although my first semester's ratings were generally positive, a few of the written comments really got me down. Sure, some were silly complaints. I remember one student recommending that I allow students to keep a diary about their lives rather than reflect on writing experiences and reading selections in their learning journals. Um, that's a hard no. However, after reading several comments that I treated college students more like high school students, I really had to reflect on my behavior. After all, I had come straight from teaching high school. Although I initially found this critique hurtful, it motivated me to make some adjustments. For example, I still stress punctuality and make a note of tardiness in attendance records, but I don't comment in class when a student arrives late. And since I've made these adjustments, I no longer receive student complaints that they are treated like high school students. Let students know what it takes to succeed in the course. Yes, I know, it's in the syllabus! But students, especially beginning students, need reminders and gentle encouragement to take advantage of resources, both those I provide and those available elsewhere in the institution. During each class, I quickly display my course website and use it to remind students of upcoming assignments, deadlines, and supplementary materials. On average, I spend less than one minute doing this, but it helps reinforce my expectations, keeps them aware of resources, and reminds them I'm available to help. We all list office hours in the syllabus, but many students are shy about one-on-one time or unsure of its benefits. I let students know they're welcome and give examples of what can occur during these sessions. One of my colleagues requires each student to come to her office for a five-minute appointment at the beginning of the semester. In this way students know where to find her and discover that they can talk with her. She reports these initial appointments have increased the number of students she sees during office hours. Being available in our offices, ready to help, and knowledgeable about resources shows students that we care and want them to succeed. That counts when they complete their course evaluations. Student evaluations, good or bad, are only a small reflection of our overall service as educators. However, they area part of academic life, and when we make small changes that help our students anyway, that may come back to us as higher scores. And, we've earned those higher scores with integrity.