Feedback Please!

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Working, as I do, on a college campus, I learn in some very public places. Only two minutes ago, I overheard a group conversation in the ladies room. It went something like this: "I got an 85 on mine. What did you get on yours? Did he write anything on your paper? No, he didn't write anything on mine either. He just gave me a number. I don't get it. I do the assignment and he takes points off. I don't even know why. It's stupid! Why can't he write something so we know why he gave us this grade?"

Although I wanted to ask the student for her professor's name, I didn't. Perhaps I should have asked. Something as simple as a rubric could have provided more feedback than just a grade - a "number" as this student said. That "number" didn't provide feedback, didn't promote learning, and actually decreased the value of that assignment, in the student's eyes, as a tool for learning. Providing no feedback made that "number" seem quite arbitrary - meaningless, really. She was clearly frustrated.

So, what to do. Add it to my "to do" list of faculty professional development topics? Include an article about the importance of feedback in our next newsletter? They seem too trivial. I'm actually thinking that a video of students sharing experiences like these and how it kills learning would be most powerful. Having students share how something as simple as feedback can make a difference would be great. What if I hung a poster and asked students to write about their feedback experiences, or lack thereof, to capture their thoughts in a different way?

It's such a simple thing. I will not ignore this need.  

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I do not defend bad teaching (and lack of learning?), but maybe its time to sit back and look at teaching from a business process point of view. We have a tenet in business that you have to do three things well to excel in business. 1) You need to define where you want to go (a strategy); 2) You need to measure progress towards that goal (good metrics); 3) You need to provide incentives for people to make progress towards the goal as measured by the metrics. Many call this the three legged stool that cannot stand without all three legs.

In higher education we have problems with all three legs. What is the strategic goal: higher enrollment, students with warm fuzzy feelings, higher-order learning? For anyone reading this, the goal is probably learning. but it is often not clear in many institutions regardless of what they say in their mission statement. If learning is the goal, then what is the metric. AACSB (accreditation for business) is just starting to require schools to assess and record what has been learned. Although these efforts are useful, they are mostly course or teacher based and not generalizable on a broader scale. What metrics are important to administrators? Here it is SRTEs or student approval of instructors and their courses. I'll just stop there on this subject or I am likely to rant.

What about incentives? SRTEs again. What do I get as a teacher for really preparing students for enriching lives. Admittedly there is an intrinsic value in doing so, but little financial benefit to me. So as part of the tenure process I am not all I can be because the risk of angering students is too great. After I get tenure, I will be able to take more risks, but will I be burned out by then?

If we really want to foster learning, we as an institution have to find some better way to reward actual learning by students, certainly for the teachers and possibly for the students as well. Learning is its own reward, but it sometimes doesn't pay the bills.

I guess this is a long winded way to say that it isn't always the individual that is the root cause of bad teaching. Sometimes its the system.

I feel for the ladies.

Without something specific, it's hard for students to know what to fix. Worse it gives students the ideas that grades are basically arbitrary. And ironically, that kind of thinking leads to practices like plagiarism.

From the instructor's side, there are benefits to being specific, one of which is that fewer students will "pester" you with grading questions. They will see the rationale and hopefully follow practice.

When I teaching and get a grading question it's almost always due to a genuine error on my part. And yes, a better rubric does result in more pleasing final projects to review (always a plus in my book).

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