four lenses: student lens

Gathering feedback from students can provide valuable insight into teaching and learning. For Brookfield, when teachers reflect on their practice using the student lens they become more responsive to the needs of students (35). Student-centered teaching is vitally important in helping students gain the most out of their education. The University of Sydney already has in place a number of methods for gathering student feedback. (See, for example, the Institute for Teaching and Learning's overview of student surveys). But there are many other ways to gather feedback from students (quizzes, minute papers, journals, assessment tasks, for example) that can be used with or instead of formal surveys, when appropriate. Whatever the means, the challenge for teachers is to analyse, interpret, and act on student feedback. Below you can find explanations of several approaches to collecting student feedback, and exercises to help you reflect upon and respond to that feedback.

Unit of Study Evaluation (USE) Surveys

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has developed USE (Unit of Study Evaluation) Procedures that are conducted in conformity with USE university policy. USE surveys are provided by the University's Institute for Teaching and Learning (ITL). They are purpose-designed to gather feedback from students about their experience of a unit of study. USE surveys are important for both the Faculty and the university because their questions relate to key institutional surveys. For more information about the context, purpose, design and administration of USE surveys, as well as the university's policy, see the USE survey section of the ITL Website.

In summary, individual Units of Study should be surveyed using USE surveys at least once every three years (this frequency can be varied sometimes, where justified or warranted). USE surveys are designed to evaluate a whole Unit of Study, rather than an individual teacher's methods. Data from USE surveys yields crucial information for a range of people and purposes: for individual unit of study coordinators, for a team involved in planning or redesigning a unit, and for staff involved in departmental planning and review of curricula. USE data should always be handled ethically (especially with respect to staff and student confidentiality) and with care and attention to its chief purpose. When used by an individual academic as part of a case for promotion, for example, USE data needs to be appropriately contextualised and interpreted.

The following two exercises are designed for Unit of Study Coordinators and can be used to assist in the interpretation of results obtained from USE surveys. The exercises could be adapted for team and/or departmental discussions. The exercises show how to develop action plans for teaching improvement and/or redesigning elements of a unit in response to student feedback. The ITL has also developed resources that can help Unit of Study Coordinators interpret and respond to feedback. These resources and exercises should be seen as guides; staff should feel free to design their own methods for responding to feedback.

  • USE Personal Reflection Exercise: an exercise for you to reflect upon what is required of students undertaking the USE, and to help you communicate key aspects of your unit and teaching methods to students.
  • USE Interpretation Exercise: an exercise to help you interpret important feedback contained in your USE results. The exercise also helps you draft plans and responses to the feedback.

Student Focus Groups

Student Focus Groups enable teachers to collect specific and detailed feedback about student experiences of teaching methods, course designs, and/or learning outcomes. Typically, student focus groups gather 8-12 student participants and a third-party moderator (e.g. a colleague who does not teach in your course) to discuss aspects of your teaching. Debra Nestel (2002) has identified several benefits for both teachers and students as a result of well-organised Focus Groups:

  • Teachers receive detailed and elaborate feedback on aspects of their teaching that they have chosen to investigate.
  • Students feel like their opinions are more effective and more respected when they are communicated face-to-face (with a teacher or moderator).
  • The Focus Group provides an opportunity to clarify students' thoughts, which can often be jumbled or ambiguous in written evaluations.
  • Student remarks can be probed and clarified to uncover hidden reasons for their comments.

A forum where students feel their feedback is important and valued and where teachers gain a deep and detailed view of student experiences and expectations can overcome some of the limitations of other feedback methods. Used in conjunction with surveys, minute papers or questionnaires, Student Focus Groups can provide insights into student experiences that are essential to productive and effective alterations to teaching design and method.

Minute Papers

Angelo and Cross coined the term "one-minute paper" to refer to a quick survey conducted at the conclusion of a class to check on what has emerged as the clearest ideas for students following a class discussion. Of course, such surveys take more than one minute to conduct, but "minute paper" can be used to refer to any short student survey (5-10 minutes) that collects feedback on teaching and learning.

You may choose to conduct minute papers at the conclusion of every class (but be wary of causing survey fatigue), or every third class, or just once a semester. How often you conduct minute papers will depend on why you are conducting them. For example, you may just ask students to comment on your teaching methods mid-way through a course so you can make minor adjustments to the remainder of the course. Or, you may want to check to see if complex ideas are being communicated effectively and run minute papers to coincide with lectures presenting difficult concepts or dense material.

Three Open Questions
'Gathering Student Feedback', (a document prepared for the Arts Faculty by Natalya Lusty in 2006, drawing attention to advice also provided by the ITL) recommends using two to three open questions to prompt useful responses. You may use general questions such as:

  • What was the most useful thing you learned today?
  • How could I change my teaching to help students to learn more from this class?

Lyn Carson, from the Department of Government and International Relations, has also developed a document with some excellent questions for gathering student feedback. Alternatively, you may use or adapt a question from the Appendix to the Student Focus Group Guidelines. Posing quite specific questions can be useful. For example:

  • Which of the set readings was most helpful in preparing for today's class?
  • Did the tutorial exercise help clarify the set readings and the lecture?

A combination of questions can help you obtain both general and specific answers. For example, you may wish to uncover student perceptions about teaching methods, as well as how far they are keeping up with class discussion.

Critical Learning Surveys
Useful feedback can be gained by asking students to write down the three points they understand most clearly from the lecture material and the three points they are most uncertain about. This method leaves it open for the teacher to decide how teaching methods have influenced the reception of material and may seem less judgemental than "what did I do" / "what can I do" surveys.

In large classes it may be more practical to randomly select a number of students (4 people from each row, for example). Also, the results should be gathered anonymously (i.e. no student names or numbers on the response sheet). Students will feel valued if you promise to get back to them with the feedback (and follow through with this promise!). The following exercise provides an example on how the results you gather can lead to improved teaching methods.

  • Minute Paper Reflection Exercise: an exercise to help you record your ideas on how you might improve your teaching in response to the feedback you receive from a short student survey.

Further Reading