Rob Cobb

Feedback For Professors

Updated Sep 25, 2014

This post originally appeared as a column in The Diamondback

If you are a student, you know where you stand academically in all of your classes, except maybe for the few days of uncertainty before an exam is handed back. You have a sense of how well you are doing, maybe not to the very percentage or even letter grade, but you know what neighborhood you are in.

You know because you’ve been getting feedback. Small, graded assignments such as quizzes and homework, your own frequent syllabus analysis and point-totaling: these help you place and pace yourself. You know how well you need to do on an assignment to get the grade you want. The knowledge is supposed to help us as students shape our study habits and improve before we are stuck with a final grade.

However flawed grades are as a feedback mechanism, feedback is helpful. In the professional world, good companies give employees feedback all the time, not just at the end of a quarter or year. While this kind of review is often fraught with stress and anxiety because it is tied to compensation and advancement, it can also be a helpful tool for growth. Feedback prevents surprises — if you have been doing poorly, you know it and you won’t be fired out of the blue.

Excellent college teachers seek out continuous feedback. Most teachers, however, stick to a syllabus finalized before ever meeting the students, and wait until the end of semester course evaluations for feedback. Instead of smoothly adapting and improving their teaching over the course of the semester, they must attempt to learn disjointedly when their lump of student feedback arrives. More worrisome to me, only students who complete the full class are surveyed; there is no mechanism to collect feedback from students who dropped or withdrew from the class likely the most important students to ask.

On top of all that, cultural norms within academia minimize the importance of student feedback, at least for the tenure track. What matters is teaching the curriculum approved by the department, not doing whatever the students say. Sure, student evaluations will be considered as part of reviews for promotions, but they don’t weigh nearly as much as publication. Often, evaluation is viewed as a way for students to reward teachers who make classes easy and punish those who make them rigorous.

None of this is to say that college teachers do not care; they work untold hours to serve students who are often apathetic. Most teachers care deeply about student learning, just not deeply enough to actually approach a student and ask for feedback on their teaching.

The university has many goals: We are a research school, so the focus of many faculty is on their academic work, including research and publishing, not instruction. A quarter of students at this university are graduate students, whose mentorship and guidance takes up a great deal of faculty attention. Still, educating undergraduates comes first in our school’s mission. To make that a reality for our teachers, they need more frequent and useful feedback — not just performance ratings, but information framed for making decisions for improving pedagogy and communication of content.

If a part of a lecture was boring or unclear, teachers need to know that immediately, not at the end of the semester, when students have forgotten what was boring and teachers can’t do anything about it anyway. If an assignment or anecdote was particularly enlightening, they ought to get that feedback immediately. If the feedback is going to be good, it should be anonymized, open and available all the time.

Provost Mary Ann Rankin, deans, assistant deans and President Loh: help our teachers teach better. Encourage them to improve. Build them a system for immediate student feedback.

🤓😽 Rob Cobb
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