The Feedback That Makes You a Better Teacher

Progression and development are important in every profession. For teachers even more so. We’d all like to give students the best possible knowledge-base to rely on in their future professional life.

So, where should teacher improvement come from? How have seasoned teaching-masters gotten so incredibly good?

Part of it comes from pure experience and formal training. But the factor most experts point to when it comes to improving skills is receiving and acting on feedback. The thing is just that teacher receive a notoriously small amount of feedback over the duration of their career.

Just ask Bill Gates. I hope no one has missed this inspiring TED-talk on the subject.

And he’s not alone to think of feedback as a key to professional development. In almost every profession, feedback is the main driver of improvement, from athletes to CEOs to authors. We all need feedback to become better.

In 2009, the OECD organization appointed a group of experts to investigate what effect feedback has within the teaching profession.

Here are just some of the highlights from the report:

  • Feedback has a strong positive influence on teachers and their work.
  • Feedback increases job satisfaction.
  • Feedback significantly increases teacher development.
  • The more detailed the feedback, the better improvement.
  • Many countries have a lacking feedback system, if it exists in the first place.

Adding to the low occurrence of feedback, many schools and universities have for a long time advocated a system where student feedback surveys constitute a high stake evaluation of the teacher himself. Results have a direct influence on decisions such as tenure, salary raise, and career advancement.

For these schools and universities ‘teacher feedback’ has become synonymous to ‘teacher evaluations’.

The problem with such a system is that it removes focus from improving teaching practices and replaces it with an easy way for administration to get rid of unruly teachers.

So, has teacher evaluations derailed completely? Many claim they have. A long time ago. For example, although findings are conflicting, some researchers have found a correlation between teachers with high remarks on end-course evaluations and a more generous grading. If that’s true, there’s a risk of teacher evaluations actually causing more harm than good in education.

Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need to evaluate teachers. But a system where the main driver of improvement is also what decides a continued employment is far from ideal.

Taking matters into own hands

A group of educators realized the feedback system was flawed a while back and started to collect feedback on their own initiative at different times during courses. The practice was an instant success and later became a more integrated part of the standard feedback procedure in forward-thinking schools. Today this is what we refer to as formative and mid-term evaluations.

When the purpose is to collect valuable feedback to improve teaching skills, formative and mid-course evaluations have been proven superior to end-course evaluations for several reasons:

  • Their only purpose is to improve teaching practices.
  • Informal. Administered and review directly by the teacher.
  • Focused and short.
  • Improvements can be implemented immediately.

Luckily, most institutions have now realized the greatness that comes with informal feedback collection. If you belong to an institution without a clear strategy of teacher improvement and feedback gathering, I strongly suggest you take matters into your own hands.

Next, let’s look at how feedback is being collected. Out of every 10 feedback survey questions students are being asked, approximately 8 are closed-ended Likert-scale (I strongly agree, I agree, and so on) questions.

Close-ended questions are great for following trends over time and as a framework for statistical analysis. What they’re less good at is providing useful information that can be used as a basis for improvement. For that, we need open-ended questions as they provide a way to collect detailed information without limiting responses. Something as complex as teaching simply can’t be described using 5 or 7 pre-set stances. What’s more is that you’ll often learn about things you didn’t expect at all using written feedback.

The setback, of course, is analyzing the result. Digging the gems out of even a small evaluation can be a arduos and time-consuming task. Fortunately, technology is about to bring us a way of handling open-ended responses with a breeze.

A couple of innovative edtech-companies across the world are competing to develop a way of automatically making sense of open-ended student feedback using advanced technology. The goal is to translate student comments into actionable recomendations on how to improve teaching

If you’re curious about how it works or like to try yourself, take a look at this great report containing everything you need to know about text analytics for student comments. A well-functioning system isn’t that far off, it turns out.


Originally published at blog.hubert.ai on January 9, 2018.