Frequent Student Feedback Improves the Class

In this section, Professor Michael Short shares how he elicits student feedback throughout the semester as a way to improve his teaching “in the moment,” as opposed to waiting until after the course has ended.

I don't believe in the way that MIT does its evaluations, where feedback is sought only at the end of the term. The students are at their angriest, right before the final exam. By then it's too late to improve the class, and most of the most critical details are forgotten.

So for every class, I have a rant page. It's just a web form that collects anonymous comments from the students, which they can fill out at any time. The students were 100% respectful. There was not one disparaging comment the whole time, which was great and unusual for MIT. They did not use the form to spam. They didn't flame or say anything hateful. Because they know I’m going to read it, the form teaches the students to be constructive in their criticism.

There were two kinds of comments, with a 50 / 50 distribution: 1) “I love the class, but could you change this? It would make it better.” and 2) “I just read this awesome article, could you share it in class?”

When I was doing something wrong, and they ranted, I would address it the next day in class. Like I said, “OK, you want me to go through more example problems on the board? Great, let's do that now.” Some students said they didn't like the research questions where they had to look up papers and things. So I explained to them why they'll be doing them. And why, if you want to be a scientist, this is the rest your life -- so I'm getting you used to it now.

The feedback improved the class dramatically … [and] provided extra teaching moments.

— Michael Short

The feedback improved the class dramatically. Since it worked in near real-time, this year's students could benefit, not just the next year. And it meant that no teaching moment, either for them or for me, was forgotten.

When the end-of-semester teaching evaluations for this course came about, the comments were equally respectful. I would like to see MIT adopt this system because the teaching evaluations could so easily be made more useful, more positive, and teach students to be more respectful. In other classes, people have said some pretty crappy things. But when you defuse the tension during the term, there's none left at the end.