A cloud of feedback

I’m sure I’m not the only person who struggles to appropriately receive criticism. I know how valuable it is to gather feedback from students on my teaching, it is the best way for me to gauge how well they are receiving my lessons and to make note of areas that I could improve. I spend most of my time in my own classroom (the importance of peer observation is the topic for another post!) but students see many different teachers and teaching styles so they are in a better position to compare and offer suggestions. Yet, when it comes time to read through the feedback I dread it. One negative comment, my stomach sinks and I start to make excuses and defend myself against this perceived insult.

Last year I tried something different. I wanted to achieve two things, firstly I wanted to be able to turn feedback into constructive improvements in my teaching, and secondly, I wanted to show the students that I was taking their feedback onboard. I offered a feedback survey (via a Google form) to the students in my lectures in Week 3 and again in Week 6 of the semester. The Google form was a quick and easy way to gather feedback and the students could be secure that their feedback was anonymous. I gave students time in my lecture to fill in the survey but also asked that students who were listening to the recording go to the link and complete the survey as well. Only four students who were not present in the lecture did the survey.

The survey was kept short and consists of the following questions:

  1. How much are you enjoying the lectures so far? (not at all 1 – 5 really enjoying them)
  2. How are you finding the pace of the lectures so far? (too slow 1 – 5 too fast)
  3. What’s one thing that you are enjoying in lectures?
  4. What’s one thing that you are finding difficult or frustrating in lectures?
  5. What’s one thing that you would like there to be more time on (e.g. one concept from lectures you didn’t quite understand)

The question about pace (Q2) was added this year as last year I would get some comments from students about the pace being too fast or too slow but I wanted to get a feel for how all students were finding it and not just those at the extreme ends.

When reading through the feedback I noticed some similar comments coming up again and again. It was at this point I decided to code the student responses to the open-ended questions. I had around 100 responses to code but the coding process was relatively fast. Sometimes I could tell that comments were getting at a similar theme but it was difficult to find the word that went with that theme. I then ran the coded responses through an online wordcloud generator (https://worditout.com/word-cloud/create). Now I was able to see quickly and easily the common themes in my feedback. I made three wordclouds, for responses to each of the three open-ended questions.

I then shared these wordclouds with my students in the following lecture and talked about some of the ways I might (or might not be able to) address some of their concerns. This method helped me to be more strategic in my approach to managing feedback and I feel it took some of the sting out of negative comments.

The feedback survey was a really easy way to gather student voice without disrupting the normal lecture too much. The gathering of feedback, combined with discussing that feedback with students, opened up a student-teacher channel of communication which is so difficult to establish in large lectures.