Higher Education Quality

A great way to eliminate errors and improve quality in teaching is to obtain and respond to student feedback. However, the process is often poor which results in a lot variation in both the amount and quality of student feedback.

The current state process for obtaining student feedback on the courses they haven taken looks something like this in most colleges and universities: The student is given a paper or online survey to fill out near the end of the course. Students’ responses range from:

  • Return feedback forms unfilled.
  • Thoughtful Likert scale feedback.
  • Give the professor, no matter how bad, all 5s (on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 = best).
  • Unspecific criticism of the professor in written feedback.
  • Searing written criticism (deserved or not).
  • Thoughtful written feedback.
  • Specific and practical comments for improvement.

In most cases, the feedback is processed batch-and-queue, which means the information is not processed in real-time (resulting in delays, lost feedback, etc.). Instead, the feedback is collected and reviewed first by the department chair and then later by head of the department’s faculty evaluation committee (or vice versa). The feedback then goes to the professor, often weeks later, who is encouraged (but not required) to respond to students’ feedback.

Surprisingly, the chief academic offer (provost) and dean of the school may not be involved in the process of reviewing student feedback on a semester-by-semester basis, except in aggregate for professors’ annual evaluation or for periodic promotions – making them the last to see the data. So, they do not really know who is a good teacher, who is a great teacher, or who is a lousy teacher. They do not know who is improving and why, and they do not know whose performance is faltering and why. They have impressions, but usually lack both facts and reliable data. This is one reason why professors who teach poorly can remain in the classroom for decades.

I think the future state process should look something like this:

Each semester, the Provost communicates directly to all students the importance of student feedback, provides guidance for giving feedback, and informs them of how their feedback is used in processes to evaluate faculty and improve teaching. The survey instrument is simple – few, rather than many questions – and administered online (at mid-term and at the end of the term) so that data can be collected electronically and analyzed using software.

The Provost would be the first person to receive and review the data: summary reports showing the courses, programs, and study the areas that received the highest and lowest scores, and so on. Now we begin to accumulate facts and more reliable data. The Provost again communicates directly to all students informing them of the results (at a high level) and thanks them for their feedback.

Deans, department chairs, faculty, etc., would immediately get reports showing data that is relevant to them. This information would then be used to identify process problems (not people problems) that, if corrected, will improve both the work done by faculty and the value and effectiveness of courses and degree programs. Identifying process problems in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way will point to practical improvements that could include:

  • Teacher training (by self, peers, and professionals).
  • Sharing of teaching methods among faculty.
  • Assign courses to faculty that align with their strengths.
  • Change faculty members’ ratios of teaching, research, and service.

The desired outcome is to improve teaching in non-zero-sum (win-win) ways so that:

  • Student retention in difficult academic programs is improved.
  • 4-year graduation rates are improved.
  • Students’ preparedness for work is improved.
  • Students learn, retain, and apply what they learned.
  • Student satisfaction steadily increases over time.
  • Students experience 36 or 37 great professors out of 40.
  • Employer satisfaction increases.

Continuously improving the processes for obtaining and responding to student feedback is fundamental to the success of higher education. It should be a top 5 priority for all colleges and universities, led, of course, by the president and provost.

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