How to Make the Most of Student Feedback During Distance Learning
It’s harder to read a class when students are learning at home, so teachers need to explicitly ask for feedback.
As teachers, we constantly look for clues that can help us understand the impact of our decisions. Are we doing things that are working? How do we know?
Do students appear engaged? What sense are students making? Who is participating, and who isn’t? Should I step in or let this discussion go a bit longer? We rely on data to help us answer these questions.
When I’m teaching in a physical classroom, the data seems rich and abundant. I look for patterns in participation and body language. I look for nonverbal cues that give me some sense of what students might be thinking. I listen for small bits of conversations that help me visualize a picture of what is going on. All of this data is invaluable to me because it helps inform my next steps.
This rich, analog data stream from my in-person classroom has turned into a multichannel digital data stream in my virtual classroom. The data looks different, and I’m much less experienced at interpreting it.
I’m left with questions for which I have little data to support any answers. Is the student on my computer screen with a confused and concerned look on their face lost in what we’re discussing, or are they reading the news? Why did that student just turn off their video? Is any of this working?
In my efforts to get more visibility into what is actually happening in my virtual classroom, I created new routines for gathering, analyzing, and using feedback.
5 Ideas for Using Feedback Well This Year
1. Create feedback routines: In-person teaching gave me plenty of informal ways to gather data and feedback. I have to be far more intentional in the virtual setting. I now use a feedback form with four questions. The first section is focused on me, the teacher: “What is one thing you found helpful?” and “What is one thing that could be improved?” The second section is focused on them, my students: “What is one thing you are proud of from this class?” and “What is one thing you'd like to improve on?”
Since I created this feedback form, I’ve gathered thousands of data points that help me better understand my own teaching, as well as my students’ learning.
2. Interpret feedback thoughtfully: I immediately found the feedback illuminating. Overwhelmingly, my students appreciated the breakout rooms, wanted clearer directions for the group activities, and needed more organization with all of the digital resources and links I referenced during class. If I hadn’t explicitly asked my students for feedback, I likely would have never considered these issues.
However, students didn’t agree on everything. Some students indicated that they loved how I incorporated the chat box into our activities, while others felt overwhelmed by it. Some felt that we were moving too fast; others felt that some of the activities dragged on too long. This feedback was also helpful, as it underscored the reality that different students were experiencing my class in different ways.
3. Learn from students’ experiences: Although I created the feedback form to learn more about how my students were experiencing my teaching, there was an additional positive benefit that I hadn’t anticipated. Some students described the approaches their other teachers were using. This surfaced a new favorite question for me to ask my students: “Is there something one of your teachers is doing that you wished all of your teachers were doing?”
Students are the ones who are actually experiencing various approaches across teachers and virtual classrooms. They are uniquely positioned to share what is working and what is not.
4. Share with students what you’re learning: I was explicit with my students about how much I valued their feedback and shared the themes that emerged.
I tried to explicitly connect instructional decisions I was making in the moment to the feedback that I had received. When my actions appeared to contradict a theme from the feedback, I’d justify why I was doing what I was doing. In this way, I was hoping to build trust with my students that I was listening to their feedback so that they would feel encouraged to continue to provide me with thoughtful ideas on how to improve the class.
5. Learn to love feedback: Feedback can be difficult to hear, particularly when it contradicts how we see ourselves.
Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone suggest that there are three “feedback triggers” that can be activated when we receive feedback: the truth trigger (dealing with the substance of the feedback and whether we think it is true), the relationship trigger (relating to the relationship we have with the person giving us the feedback), and the identity trigger (feedback that might implicate aspects of how we see ourselves).
I have experienced each of these triggers. For example, if I received feedback that was factually inaccurate (e.g., “You never shared the link with us”) or feedback that threatened an aspect of how I see myself (e.g., feedback that called into question my thoughtfulness in planning), I understood why I was feeling the way I was. I was able to identify and label the feedback trigger, which helped create space for me to actually hear the feedback and move forward, rather than trying to discredit the feedback or dwelling on it.
Students’ feedback dramatically accelerated my learning. Reminding myself that being an educator requires me to constantly reflect and grow allowed me to reframe my relationship with feedback.
I look forward to the day when I return to in-person teaching. I look forward to reacquainting myself with the rich data I get when I take a lap around a real physical classroom, picking up a thousand subtle cues. However, I also look forward to bringing a more intentional approach to my data collection as well. I think I overestimated my ability to truly know what was going on while I was teaching in person. Being remote forced me to be more intentional. We can learn a lot from our students. But we need to ask them.