The Many Benefits of Cultures of Feedback within the Classroom

Have you ever noticed that the word feedback often gets a bad rap? Common nomenclature suggests that it is something that we should fear. We hear expressions like, “face the feedback!” and in our minds’ eyes we see images of a person walking off a plank into the angry waters of judgment and ridicule. Perhaps, I’m exaggerating here a bit; however, how many of us have heard someone say, at least once, “Well, if you don’t want to know, don’t ask!” To that end, a quick search of comic strips on the web demonstrates immediately how often feedback is depicted culturally as something that is staved and dreaded.

Now, it is not to say that there isn’t some truth behind these perceptions of feedback and I would be remiss if I did not pause and acknowledge the many substantiated reasons for why we need to be critical consumers of the vast amount of information we process every day. In fact, the ability to evaluate information critically, (e.g. its source, its representativeness, its applicability, etc.), has become an essential learning expectation for most academic disciplines in higher education.  Rather, what is worth shifting our attention to for a moment is the role that common beliefs play in creating an anticipatory anxiety toward incorporating feedback opportunities into our organizational and learning environments.

As instructors at U of T know, feedback plays an important role in our university academic processes. Within our learning contexts, in its simplest form, instructors evaluate students’ abilities through a variety of informal and formal assessments throughout the term; and their students, in turn, evaluate the quality of their learning experiences – most typically at the end of the term – in the form of course evaluations. These processes are formalized through course syllabi, tenure and review files, and university quality assurance practices.

However, as teaching is an iterative, adaptive, and responsive practice, to what extent does routinized, informal feedback play in our teaching? To what extent do we feel confident as instructors to create the space in our teaching for regular “check-ins” with our students about their learning experiences in our courses? To what extent are we apprehensive about not only the responses we will, receive from our students; but the task of how we, in turn, respond with changes to our instructional approaches, lesson planning, and behaviours in the classroom?

As we begin a new academic year here at U of T, there are a few points to be made in response to the hesitation that some instructors feel about creating space in their classrooms for regular, informal feedback from their students. The first point is that the incorporation of informal forms of feedback need not be complex or time intensive. There are a number of simple techniques that can be integrated at various points throughout the course. In addition to beginning of the term techniques, like a brief questionnaire about student background experience with course concepts etc., incorporating techniques throughout the course that gauge students’ perceptions of the content, an instructional activity, or a course resource, for example, immediately after they experience it, provides some of the most valuable information an instructor can collect about the learning experience that he or she is attempting to create in the classroom. One useful technique is the Muddiest Point (in which students anonymously write down an aspect of the lecture/activity/problem set/etc., that they felt was “muddy” or difficult to understand). Again, instructors need not look extensively into the educational development literature for ideas – the important feature is that the feedback activity is timely, purposeful, and transparent to students. In the Muddiest Point example, starting your next class with a brief synopsis of the themes in students’ perceptions of muddy points, and how you plan to address those areas specifically, is essential to students witnessing the integration of their learning needs into your instructional approaches, in real time. Please see this PDF for other feedback techniques you can incorporate in your class.

There are a number of other benefits for instructors when they incorporate informal feedback purposefully into their courses. First, in addition to collecting timely context and content specific information about students’ learning experiences, the incorporation of informal feedback, and the subsequent reporting back to students, models nicely the process of inquiry and reflection that we strive for students to develop as critical thinkers. So, by demonstrating how you, as the instructor, are learning about their learning processes, and how you process, reflect, and refine your instruction to meet them in the shared course learning environment, is demonstrating that you care not only about their learning in the course but that, often times, deep learning involves adaptation along the way.

Second, by incorporating additional opportunities for student feedback, you begin to create a culture of feedback within the learning environment of your course, and this can have an important impact on your end-of-term, course evaluations. To illustrate, the Course Evaluation Service’s research with students suggests that one of the reasons why students sometimes don’t feel engaged in course evaluations is because the feedback they are asked to provide at the end of the course has little impact on their learning experiences within that course, in real time. There are indeed students who see the benefit of their feedback for future iterations of the course; however, from an interpersonal perspective, the end of a feedback exchange is to typically witness it applied by the receiver, and end-of-term course evaluations typically fail to meet that social expectation. So, in courses where instructors have incorporated, routine, informal opportunities to check in with their students along the way (and have, in turn, shown how they have responded with even small changes to instructional approaches, group activities, discussion materials, etc), end of term course evaluations show a similar high level of engagement, because feedback has become part of the culture of the course (Hmielseski & Champagne, 2000; Nevo, McLean, & Nevo, 2010).

So, as you move into the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, take a moment to consider how you can incorporate opportunities for student feedback within the learning environment of your course(s). The Centre for Teaching Support & Information can assist you in your thinking and planning through their instructional guide printed publication, Gathering Formative Feedback with Mid-Course Evaluations, and are also available for individual consultation requests. Moreover, if instructors have any questions about how to link informal forms of feedback to their end-of-term course evaluations, please email for direct assistance.

By Cherie Werhun, PhD, Teaching Assessment & Course Evaluation Coordinator, CTSI