Mean It When You Ask for Feedback

One way to endear yourself to students is to ask for feedback during the course. This action signals that you are interested in the quality of their learning environment. It’s also an opportunity for students to reflect critically on what makes for more and less effective teaching and learning. When done well, feedback conversations can build a lot of good will between the professor and the students, which can lead to increased participation and engagement by the students.

However, for this good will to last, you must mean it when you ask for feedback. If you appear to want student input but in fact don’t plan to respond to or act on it, your students will quickly know, and they will be skeptical. You can earn their trust by seeking to understand their feedback and by clearly explaining how and when you will use the feedback.

  1. Acknowledge and understand the feedback. This can be as simple as nodding your head, looking at the speaker, rephrasing/summarizing their points, and writing down notes. All of those actions demonstrate that the feedback is being received, heard, and processed.
  2. Be clear about the purpose of the feedback. Are these suggestions you will implement next time you teach the class? If so, students aren’t necessarily expecting changes now. Are you asking for feedback about how to run the course this semester? If so, be prepared to respond to the feedback and engage in a discussion about how the feedback will (or will not) result in changes for the remaining weeks in the term.

An easy way to start this process is to ask about something discrete and whether to do it again in the future. Some examples include:

  • Which of the readings from last week did you find most helpful for learning about topic X? Which would you not recommend keeping?
  • Was Speaker Y’s presentation useful? Would you recommend inviting Speaker Y back? Was this an appropriate time in the unit to hear Speaker Y’s perspective?

The benefit to these questions is that there is no pressure to implement or respond now. You clearly frame the purpose as “gathering feedback for the next time you teach this course,” and thus students know that the discussion is the end of that feedback conversation; they are not expecting changes this semester.

Students have opinions about what happens in class. They appreciate being asked for their opinions. But if they feel their feedback is ignored or not taken seriously, they may end up more unhappy and distrustful than if you had never asked for feedback in the first place. If you’re going to ask for feedback, demonstrate to the students that you are seeking to understand the feedback and make sure they have realistic expectations about what you will do with the feedback.

This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium hosted at Western Kentucky University.

Ilisabeth S. Bornstein, J.D.
Interim Director, Center for Teaching Excellence
Lecturer in Legal Studies
Bryant University, Smithfield, RI