Agony Aunt

January 7, 2000

My students seem reluctant to return their feedback forms

at the end of term. How can I persuade them of the importance when I am not sure of it myself?

Lee Harvey, Director of the Centre for Research into Quality, University of Central England

A Student cynicism can arise for two reasons: they get given endless boxes to tick with no interesting questions to answer and they never find out what happens to forms after they have filled them in.

If this is the case, it it no surprise that your students need to be persuaded to fill forms in. Show them that a clear cycle of feedback and action exists. Although complete cycles of response-to-feedback-to-action happen only 5 per cent of the time, it is important to keep students informed about any resulting action.

Ask them questions that relate to what they say needs improving or what has come out of student focus groups. Show them what other student groups have achieved over the years and the changes that have been put in place. Assure them that the things they dislike could be removed. This will help convince students that their opinions will be valued enough to bring about change.

Do not use a standardised form or one that has been designed by managers for managers. Make sure there is plenty of space for longer comments. As long as the students can become engaged with the subject, it will not seem like just another boring bureaucratic practice but a process that really means something.

* Brian Mitchell, Associate dean of undergraduate programmes, School of legal studies, University of Wolverhampton.

Make sure that none of your staff sees student feedback as something that threatens or undermines their positions. Some members of staff are reluctant about giving students the right to a forum or any form of authority. Yet, on the whole, students will value the opportunity to make comments on their academic experiences and, in the main, we have had very few problems with students refusing to respond. Most members of staff will come round to accepting the feedback form as a valid and useful utility.

Show staff and students that there is a reasonable rate of return on both sides. Keep your students informed of any outcomes that emerge and let them know that their input has been considered. Make sure that the forms you use to collect the information have been devised by the academics delivering the course, as there will be an element of consensus between staff and student expectations.

Hold annual monitoring sessions where subjects such as the quality of the student feedback questionnaires can be discussed. Staff-student subject committees also present ideal locations for feedback sessions.

* Mantz York, Professor of higher education, Liverpool John Moores University.

Do not feel you must rely on computer-based methods to gauge students' opinions. Ask yourself why it is you want feedback and how you are going to use it, as there are a number of other ways lecturers can get comments from their students.

Some of the alternatives may be more immediate and helpful, rather than having to get all the forms filled in and then waiting for a machine at the other end. Ask your students to leave notes and comments as they leave the lecture theatre. If they shy away from being too critical, then perhaps you should consider leaving the room while they do this. These approaches are often much easier to carry out and are just as effective as the computer-based methods.

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