Authors: Hannah Grist, Mark Allinson, Sam Jones, and Georgia Terry.
Feedback is a vital part of the university environment, and feedback from our students on their teaching, learning, and assessment experiences is a crucial element of our quality assurance process. Whether through mid or end of unit evaluation, national satisfaction surveys, or informally, receiving feedback is an important way in which we can develop our own practice and enhance our units and programmes for the future (Flodén 2017). Positive feedback from our students often signifies things are going well and that we should seek to build on our successes. At times, however, we can receive feedback which may feel challenging, upsetting, or even hurtful. Research has shown that there is a close link between our personal identity and student feedback (Arthur 2009; Heffernan 2022) and that negative student feedback can have a significant emotional impact on staff. While students are reminded of the need to provide feedback which is constructive and meets the standards set out in the Acceptable Behaviour Policy, challenging feedback still slips through, especially in free text responses which are not reviewed centrally or redacted before reports are issued (UoB 2022, 5). As staff, how do we deal with challenging student feedback, and how can we use it constructively?
How to use this guide
The following guide is for all staff who engage with student feedback, and it offers some practical steps and advice with a particular focus on feedback received as part of the unit evaluation process, most often using the Blue tool (Bristol Live Unit Evaluation).
The guide is arranged across four sections, broadly mapped to the stages we go through when working with student feedback.
- Part 1 explores preparing to receive and engage with student feedback;
- Part 2 offers guidance and practical advice for reading, processing, and categorising feedback;
- Part 3 explores how we might implement changes through acting upon feedback;
- Part 4 highlights sources of further support.
Part 1) Preparing to read student feedback
An effective way to prepare for engaging with student feedback is to spend a little time engaging in a short self-reflection. Schön’s (1983) model of ‘reflection-on-action’ might be helpful, in encouraging us to reflect on:
- What went well during the unit/programme?
- What did not go so well during unit/programme?
- What would I like to change or develop for the future?
You may then wish to reflect on any contextual factors that may influence or shape the kind of feedback you are about to read. Contextual factors might include, for example:
- The number of students on your unit/programme (so that when you read your feedback you may get a sense of how representative it is)
- The time of day or day of the week your classes were typically scheduled
- Unexpected disruptions to the original plan (e.g. if there were periods of industrial action or if you were unwell)
Reflecting upon your own feelings about your teaching practice and being conscious of contextual factors that may have affected your unit/programme before you engage with student feedback can be an effective way to put any challenging or unexpected student feedback into perspective.
Part 2) Reading and categorising student feedback
There are many different approaches you could take when you come to read student feedback, and everyone will have a personal preference. To mitigate the emotional or affective impact of challenging feedback, Reiner (2006) advocates taking some time (a week or so) between your first read, and your later, more detailed review of the feedback.
Another strategy for engaging with student feedback is to start by documenting the major strengths and weaknesses of the unit/programme as reported by students. A two-column list can provide a visual reminder that the positive feedback often far outweighs the negative and can also be a helpful way to begin to prioritise actions (for example, issues that have been raised repeatedly are likely to need further attention).
The following table may also be another useful tool to categorise free-text feedback further and can help us process the affective (emotional) response to the feedback. Here, we have focused the examples on negative/challenging feedback, but this can also work as an inspiring activity for positive free-text comments. It is important to remember that there may not be a productive response to some of the comments, and that is perfectly fine! This is especially the case if the comments are isolated exceptions.
|Student Comment(s)||Affective Response|
How do you feel about the comment?
How could you use the comment?
“I wish you would have occasionally worn something other than blue!”
|Mixed Reaction Comments|
Half of the comments stated, “I loved the seminars!” / The other half stated, “I hated all the seminars!”
You thought it had gone well but student ratings and comments do not match what you had expected
“You talked too fast; your slides were boring; the lectures were too long!”
“There was too much reading, and we were expected to do too much group work!”
“There were too many assessments and I had other unit assessments due at the same time!”
“You did not treat all students the same and clearly had favourites!”
“You are a terrible teacher and should not be allowed to teach again. I want my money back!”
Remember that almost no survey records 100% satisfaction, and that people rate their satisfaction at different levels (some always at 5/5, others always at 4/5 even if they are very satisfied). Some students may use surveys to express their annoyance at being in a class they would rather not have chosen, whatever the quality of your teaching. Random, unsubstantiated comments can usually be (dis)regarded as outliers.
The approaches above are based on individual reflection and evaluation, but research has shown the value in exploring feedback (and your feelings about it) with peers and experienced colleagues (Ory 2000). You might consider exploring the feedback together with the Unit or Programme Director, or colleagues who teach on the same unit/programme, using the table above to guide your discussion. An extra pair of eyes may help to reassure you that some unwarranted comments can be safely ignored, while also helping you to consider how best to understand constructive criticism. This can be a helpful process which leads effectively into the third stage of engaging with student feedback – implementing change as a result.
Part 3) Acting upon student feedback: Implementing change
After engaging with student feedback, you might feel tempted to make lots and lots of changes to your unit/programme based on all the feedback students have provided. It is however more beneficial to prioritise a few key changes that will have the most impact; using the outcome of your earlier reflections may help you decide which actions to prioritise.
If there is a significant number of negative comments about an aspect of your delivery, there is an opportunity to use these constructively (for instance, to take advice from other colleagues or to approach BILT to discuss how to prepare more engaging slides, or how to break up a lecture with some interactive elements). If possible, you may wish to discuss an issue with some of the students in more detail and seek their constructive input. Student-Staff Liaison Committees or similar could be a useful venue for this.
You may be aware of contextual issues (perhaps you have been teaching while unwell) which would explain why students have expressed their dissatisfaction. In these cases, seek support from the Programme Director or another senior colleague, or you might wish to approach Human Resources for advice.
Very occasionally, individual students may breach University policy around Acceptable Behaviour by writing unwarranted or discriminatory personal comments. If you become aware of this please refer to the procedure for staff raising allegations of unacceptable behaviour document. If the comment was made via the Blue tool, please refer this initially to your School Education Director who may contact email@example.com for advice (please see Annex A – Unit Evaluation using Bristol Live Unit Evaluation (Blue) point 28).
Very occasionally individual students may complain of perceived bias. If you are concerned that allegations of this sort have been made, you should raise them with the Programme Director or another senior colleague. The University’s policy on freedom of expression and equality within the law is set out in the Freedom of Speech Code of Practice.
It is important to share with students how you have understood or acted upon their feedback. This might also include an opportunity to remind them how to write constructive feedback, if you have received feedback which has been unnecessarily critical or personal. Closing the loop demonstrates to our students that we value the time they have taken to provide feedback (even if it might be challenging). Students like seeing changes made to their units/programmes because of their feedback and research has shown they are more likely to participate constructively in future evaluations (Young et al 2019; Tucker at al 2008) if staff are seen to have acted upon their feedback.
Ways in which you might close the ‘feedback loop’ include:
- Taking some time in class to explore feedback and actions, using a “You Said, We Did” approach
- Feeding back on your changes through upcoming Student-Staff Liaison Committee meetings
- Summarising feedback and actions in writing and uploading via Blue (if using that tool for unit evaluation) or Blackboard or other unit/programme online spaces accessible to students
It is mandatory to provide a written response to student unit evaluation feedback (as per the Unit Evaluation Policy). For those units using Blue for unit evaluation, the response should be made in the same system.
Part 4) Looking ahead: Further support
Engaging with student feedback will continue to be an important part of academic life, and whilst you will undoubtedly receive lots of positive and constructive feedback from your students you may occasionally receive feedback which is challenging. The tools/activities above offer a structure for engaging with the emotional aspect of receiving feedback, but if you feel you have been adversely affected by feedback you might like to check the range of staff wellbeing support offered by Human Resources.
As we have explored above, student feedback can be used effectively to enhance our practice and to the develop the units/programmes we teach on. If you would like any support in developing any aspect of your academic practice, or the units/programmes you contribute to, you may wish to reach out to peers and colleagues (fellow teachers, Unit/Programme Director(s), Director(s) of Teaching) for advice, or for specific training needs or pedagogic input please contact colleagues in the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT) who would be delighted to help firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur, L. 2009. “From Performativity to Professionalism: Lecturers’ Responses to Student Feedback.” Teaching in Higher Education 14:4, 441–454.
Flodén, J. 2017. “The impact of student feedback on teaching in higher education.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42:7, 1054-1068.
Heffernan, T. 2022. “Abusive comments in student evaluations of courses and teaching: the attaches women and marginalised academics ensure.” Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-022-00831-x
Reiner, C. 2006. “How I Read My Student Evaluations.” UVA Center for Teaching Excellence. https://cte.virginia.edu/resources/how-i-read-my-student-evaluations
Schön, D.A. 1991. The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Temple.
Tucker, B. S. Jones & L. Straker. 2008. “Online student evaluation improves course experience questionnaire results.” Higher Education Research and Development. 27:3,281-296.
Ory, J.C. 2000. “Teaching Evaluation: Past, Present, and Future.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 83, 13-18.
University of Bristol. 2022. “University Policy for Unit Evaluation. Annex A: UE Using Blue.” https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/academic-quality/University%20Policy%20on%20Unit%20Evaluation-Annex%20A%20UE%20Using%20Blue.pdf.
Young, K. et al. 2019. “Student evaluations of teaching: the impact of faculty procedures on response rates.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:1, 37-49.