I realize that there may be many educators out there who are already experienced with creating and utilizing effective feedback loops in their courses, classrooms, and institutions. Based on my experience, in higher education, there is more structure requiring formal feedback than there is in K-12. Some schools, such as my own, are very good at gathering feedback using both custom and standard instruments (such as the widely used Ruffalo Noel Levitz survey) and honestly reviewing and reacting to the feedback they gather. That being said, if even just one reader steps up their game in terms of effectively gathering and utilizing feedback as a result of reading this guest piece, then it is worth publishing it. – KW
Education today is as diverse as any sector of our economy can be. We have students physically in classrooms; we have students in hybrid situations of in-class and online deliveries; we have students totally online, using tools like Zoom to connect with their instructors.
But even before this health crisis, educational institutions, from grade school through graduate programs, seem to always be under fire for failing to provide the educational experiences that ensure student mastery of concepts and skills they must have.
Typical Evaluation of Educational Institutions
Schools have always been in a unique position. They do not produce physical products or services, the quality of which can easily be evaluated. They are evaluated, however, by their students’ standardized test scores (which have questionable value), how many of their students go on to college, etc. And we do know that public schools in better neighborhoods, with a higher tax base, tend to have better student performance on state and national tests.
Colleges and universities are also evaluated by any number of organizations, based upon certain criteria, such as graduate employment, program/degree offerings, student-teacher ratio, faculty background, etc.
Feedback Loops Can Be A Critical Factor in School Improvement
Students and parents should be thought of as “customers.” For their tax dollars or tuition payments, they receive a service – education. And those customers do have methods of providing feedback, though it is rarely through a structured and organized manner:
- Students and parents voice complaints and concerns to teachers, administrators, and even school boards
- College students are often provided an anonymous survey to complete at the end of each course, which can provide feedback, if such surveys are collated and taken seriously. Usually, summaries are provided to instructors but may not go beyond that point. Then, it is up to those instructors to make improvements based upon that feedback.
If educational institutions are serious about getting feedback, they need to set up far more structured and organized feedback loops, so that they get the information they seek about their service performance.
How to Structure Feedback Loops
Educational institutions can take cues from businesses as they structure their feedback loops. There are important steps in the process, along with different types of requests.
The first step is the following:
- Identify the very specifics of what you want feedback on. Asking general questions will provide an array of general responses which will be very difficult to sort out and collate into any type of report for your own evaluation.
- You may ask any number of specific questions – just be certain that each question addresses a single issue.
- Make it as easy as possible for students or parents to complete your questionnaire/survey
- Always leave space for additional remarks or comments that may not be covered by the questions you ask.
- If the feedback is in the form of a meeting, be certain to have an agenda with the questions and a method of recording each response/comment.
- If respondents veer off-topic, be certain to make note of those comments as well, so that they may become a part of discussion questions for the next meeting.
The second, and perhaps most important part of the feedback loop, is listening. Whether the feedback has been given in writing, digitally, or in person, it is the institution’s job to REALLY listen. Reading through responses and/or writing down what someone has said is not listening – it is recording. Here is how to really listen:
- Carefully think about what a respondent has said and to determine two things – is the suggestion or complaint valid, and, if so, can something be done to improve the situation?
- People need to know that their voice matters. Sending a response, even if automated, or validating what a person has said by repeating back to them what they said, tells that individual that you have heard them. And making a comment that you will seriously consider what can be done to improve the situation also helps.
The third step is to organize, collate and synthesize the responses to each of the specific questions. Categorize them, bring them to those individuals within the institution who have responsibility for addressing and resolving the situation, and provide them a timeline for responses and resolutions. This is key, so that you have a schedule of reporting back to your respondents.
The fourth step is making the loop 360°. In short, this means that responses and solutions are shared with every respondent to the original survey/questionnaire or meeting. This step should include action plans to resolve issues and timelines for those plans to be put into place. It should also include those issues that cannot be resolved, along with the reasons why.
Taking a Look at a Typical Case Study
Susan is enrolled in three online courses through her regular university, due to the current COVID crisis. The university is committed to providing quality experiences to its students, even though the delivery model has so drastically changed. And so, at the end of each semester, it provides a digital survey for all enrollees to evaluate their coursework experiences.
Susan was particularly critical of the lack of interaction with one of her instructors. The only method for communication was via email. While she was provided a syllabus, text and additional readings, even videos that covered course content, there were no lectures, discussion sessions, or face-to-face interactions with either fellow students or the instructors.
She received digital feedback via grades on the quizzes, tests, and essays she submitted and a final course grade. Her final statement about the course was that she had taken it on her own through full independent study and did not get all that she could have.
There were similar comments from other students about this and other courses. The university listened and developed some new policies. All instructors were required to take training in Zoom and to begin to implement the technology in their online courses. This allowed students to “feel” that they were in a classroom environment that was far closer to the “real thing.”
The university then contacted those students who had responded to the survey with the new policy and the anticipated dates of implementation.
Educational Institutions have Customers Too
We often think of the term “customers” as those people who patronize retail establishments. But schools must start thinking of their students as customers too. Especially at the university level, and the growing phenomenon of online coursework and degrees, competition is increasing. Educational institutions need to respond well.