Blog Archives

Feedback Questions as Course Scaffold

Pieces of glass insulation wool on scaffold against house

The semester is winding down.  Soon we’ll face the sometimes anticipated but often dreaded task of reviewing students’ course feedback. While many schools refer to them as student evaluations of teaching (SET) or SRTEs (student ratings of teaching effectiveness), they aren’t really meant to be evaluations and shouldn’t be viewed as ratings. The instruments are only one source of feedback. The unfortunate truth is they’re often assigned undeserved weight and meaning.

I’ve spent a few months reading the course feedback literature.  Much of it is conflicting and I’m not confident enough in my understanding to write about best practices yet. So for now, let’s put aside the hot button issues related to ratings differences and biases across major, gender, student-level, discipline and other concerns.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the questions. Do you have the authority to set or change some or all of the questions on your feedback instrument? If so, when was the last time you did? Do you ask the same questions in different courses? Why or why not?  I recently examined my forms, reviewed our university’s question pool, and made significant changes. It was interesting and eye opening. I highly recommend going through this exercise during a break, not mid-semester (speaking from experience).

Like many schools, our form specifies some questions.  Beyond those mandated by the university, college, and program I have a lot of choices.  Here are a few that capture my instructional goals. Rate the instructor’s skill/effectiveness in

  • Relating course material to real life situations
  • Making class sessions intellectually stimulating
  • Helping students answer their own questions
  • Encouraging students to apply concepts to demonstrate understanding
  • Emphasizing learning rather than tests and grades
  • Guiding students to be more self-directed in their learning

These items reflect instruction involving more than content coverage. I want to develop students as learners while they master accounting or economics.

The questions asked in prior semesters primarily focused on the administrative aspects of instruction such as my availability during office hours, preparation for class, skill in stressing important material, and presentation clarity. These are important, but they present a very narrow interpretation of teaching.  So much more should be happening in vibrant, engaging learning spaces; course feedback should reflect that.

Unfortunately, I cannot predict how students will react. I may, as a dear friend suggested, need to sip a good glass of wine when reviewing them. Students, unfamiliar with these questions, may not know how to respond. They may have never thought about the educational process in these terms.  This made me realize how the questions can and should be used for more than obtaining feedback at the end of the semester.

Teachers can use them as a framework for scaffolding instruction. Here’s an example to illustrate. On the wall opposite my desk at home is a sheet of paper titled The Far Goal. It lists four questions that drove my scholarly activity over the past several years.  This was a period where I shifted away from economics scholarship toward faculty development, mentoring and consulting.

  • What publishing, writing, and thinking positions me for the far goal?
  • What publishing projects will best support writing a book?
  • What publishing projects will open more consulting opportunities?
  • What publishing projects will continue the quest to be the best teacher I can become?

Each time I sat at my desk, the Far Goals were there, providing a visible reminder of what I want to achieve. The Far Goals provide a framework from which consulting and research opportunities and projects were evaluated.

Similarly, course feedback questions can scaffold instructional decisions in many ways: choosing how and when to cede control; selecting  formative and summative assessments; balancing student- v. teacher-selected topics; and instructional practice decisions like developing a pool of response strategies aimed at helping students answer questions for themselves.

Teachers can also share their questions with students at the start of the course.  They can be part of the syllabus and class discussion.  Building on this process may lead to asking students to select items from a pool of choices, thereby sharing ownership, responsibility and control of learning even more.  If you haven’t thought about course evaluation questions or the syllabus in this way before, please considering reading Learner Centered Syllabi for details about my syllabi, and beliefs about sharing control with students.  Reservations & Setting the Table for Learning considers how tone and underlying messages can detract from learning even before the course starts.

I also plan to reframe the questions as Instructional Goals to be prominently posted in my school office. The Instructional Goals will orient my choices and remind me of my teaching/learning priorities before I head to the classroom each day.

Does your course evaluation incorporate particularly good questions? Are you using them in unexpected ways? Please share!

We’ll examine the results and their implications in January.   Until then, thank you for sharing your ideas and feedback in the comments and through email this year. I appreciate learning from and with you.  Happy Holidays!