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Using Student Feedback

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Several years ago I bumped into a GTF who I knew to be a fine instructor at the UO Bookstore.  She said that she had just received her course evaluations and that she needed to come see me about them.  I asked, “how many didn’t love you this term?”  She responded “about 3”.  She had taught three sections and had worked with about ninety students.  I asked, “are we usually OK with a success rate of about 95%?”  She sort of hung her head and made some comment about not needing to see me.  I told she was more than welcome to come in for a conversation about the evaluations but that I hoped she would be able to cut herself some slack and be OK with a success rating that would be the envy of any instructor.

This isolated incident illustrates the inherent complications of dealing with student feedback.  Getting feedback, at least negative feedback, from students is difficult because we take it so personally.  It’s easy to get defensive and quickly formulate a “Yeah, but…” response.  I believe part of this reaction stems from what Albert Ellis termed the “irrational ideas” we have about the world, specifically the “dire necessity for adults to be loved by significant others for almost everything they do” and the belief that we must be “thoroughly competent, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects.”  Ellis also offers, “The idea that certain acts are awful or wicked, and that people who perform such acts should be severely damned.”  Consider THAT in how we frame comments from students.

At the same time, gathering feedback from students can be a great way to get a glimpse into how they are experiencing a course—what is working and what is not working for them—and, thus, how to make the course better.  This brief article will explore the benefits of using student feedback to be a better instructor.

Midterm Feedback

Soliciting midterm feedback from students is helpful in several ways.  One of the hidden benefits is that it builds a sense of good will between you and the students in the class.  Without exception, they feel it’s “neat” that you are asking them how the course is going at this point in the term.  More obviously is the fact that it provides you with information you can use to actually make adjustments in the course immediately, instead of waiting to making changes the next time you teach. 

The Survey feature of Canvas makes it easy to collect anonymous feedback from students, letting you know who submitted comments but not allowing you to connect them to specific students. (This can be useful if you are giving any credit to students who do participate.)  TEP offers complete instructions on using Canvas for this purpose.  We suggest gathering feedback sometime during weeks four to six and asking students to respond to two questions:  “What’s going well in the course?” and “What suggestions do you have to improve the course?”  You will receive useful comments to both questions.  Of course, you can ask any number of questions about specific aspects of the course but it has been our experience that simpler is better because you are apt to get more participation.

Another way to gather feedback is to take the last five minutes of class and have students provide anonymous written comments to those same two questions.  There may be some concern about remaining anonymous but in a larger class, that will probably not be a problem.  Handwriting can be tough to read so the Canvas option is probably the best (and easiest) to use.

Once the feedback is received, what do you do with it?  The following suggestions are taken from “Fast Feedback,” a chapter in the wonderful book Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis.

Respond quickly to students' comments.
Ideally, you will want to respond to your students' comments at the next class meeting. So schedule fast feedback activities at those times during the semester when you will have the opportunity to immediately review the class's comments.

Consider carefully what students say.
First, look over the positive things your students have said about the course. This is important because it is too easy to get swayed by negative comments. Then read their suggestions for improvement and group them into three categories:

  • Those you can change this semester (for example, the turnaround time on homework assignments)
  • Those that must wait until the next time the course is offered (for example, the textbook)
  • Those that you either cannot or, for pedagogical reasons, will not change (for example, the number of quizzes or tests)

You may want to ask a colleague or a teaching consultant to help you identify options for making changes.

Let students know what, if anything, will change as a result of their feedback.

Thank your students for their comments and invite their ongoing participation in helping you improve the course. Students appreciate knowing that an instructor has carefully considered what they have said. Clarify any confusions or misunderstandings about your goals and their expectations. Then give a brief account of which of their suggestions you will act upon this term, which must wait until the course is next offered, and which you will not act upon and why. Let students know what they can do as well. For example, if students report that they are often confused, invite them to ask questions more often. Keep your tone and attitude neutral; avoid being defensive, indignant, or unduly apologetic (Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis).

End of the Term Feedback

End of the term feedback can be so daunting that some instructors don’t even open the envelopes containing the forms.  The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University offers the following suggestions in a posting entitled Making Sense of Student Evaluations Feedback:
When considering student evaluations:

The Psychological Reaction

Reading student feedback can be challenging because it often elicits a psychological reaction.  Using student feedback to become a better instructor requires us to separate our affective reaction from a more reflective, cognitive consideration of student comments. In doing so, we are able to acknowledge the emotional component of our reaction and deal more effectively with the more outlandish comments that are sometimes made (see Responding to Course Feedback from Students (PDF logo PDF 43K).  Learning to disregard the vicious or unhelpful comments while still considering the rest of the feedback is challenging, even if you have been an instructor for many years.

In Conclusion

Student feedback is an invaluable component in the wide array of tools that can be used to improve teaching.  By gathering midterm feedback, courses can be adjusted mid-stream to make them better learning experiences for students. Through careful consideration of end of the term feedback, courses can be improved each year.  Asking for student feedback connects students and instructors and creates a sense of good will.  All we need to do is ask, and then be prepared to listen and act.



Using Canvas to Collect Midterm Feedback from Students
Step-by-step instructions detailing how to use Canvas to gather student feedback.

The Essence of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Comprehensive Approach to Treatment by Albert Ellis, Ph.D.
Contains Ellis’s famed “12 Irrational Ideas.”

Fast Feedback
From Tools for Teaching by Barbara Gross Davis
Excellent suggestions for how to solicit and use student feedback.

Student Evaluations
Comprehensive site with information on all aspects of using student evaluations.  Includes links to related

Using Student Evaluations to Improve Teaching (PDF logo PDF)
From the Speaking of Teaching: Stanford University Newsletter of Teaching, 9:1 (Fall 1997)
Comprehensive article.