Reflective Practice

What Was I Scared Of?

Photo by Morton Oddvik:

By Eileen Liang

It never occurred to me that I could ask my students for feedback. But when a friend told me about her practice of having students fill out short in-class surveys about her class, I was intrigued. This was something she typically did around the fourth week of the semester. In the survey, she would ask the students some very basic questions, such as “What are the instructor’s strengths?” and “What would you change about the way this course is taught?” This was something she had done previously, and found quite helpful for revising her pedagogical practices. Like Elizabeth Alsop, who wrote about self-designed evaluations in a recent post on Visible Pedagogy, my friend found that students were quite frank, but friendly, with fair opinions—opinions that helped her shape and revise her class.

That student evaluations could and did happen outside of the department-sanctioned end-of-semester surveys was a completely new concept for me. I certainly did not have any undergraduate professors ask me for suggestions mid-semester. Why would they? They knew what they were doing, after all: professors, like all my teachers before, seemed like gods that could do no wrong—something I had been socialized into believing growing up in a culture heavily influenced by Confucian values. Now that I’m the professor, I’m realizing just how human all educators are. (The subject for a whole separate post!)

So why did I find myself at Week 6 still debating the merits of asking my students for input? There wasn’t any real downside I could think of. Having my students spend five minutes offering some feedback… what’s the worst that could happen? If anything, I would most likely learn something useful and be able to adapt my teaching to better suit students’ needs.

The reality was, my reason for hesitating was completely selfish: I was scared to hear what they had to say. I imagined barrages of insults and complaints. I was certain my students would say they were learning nothing from me, that my class was a pointless waste of time, and that I clearly did not have my shit together. Were they going to point out that I always shook slightly and stuttered at the beginning of class? What if they wrote about my tendency to say “uh” every few words?

However, time was running short, and as spring break approached, I found that I could not put this exercise off any longer if I wanted it to be of use at all. So, I passed out the surveys (generously adapted from the one offered by my colleague), held my breath, and rushed to read them the moment class let out and my students dispersed.

And it turns out… I’m actually doing an OK job at teaching! Setting aside the fact that despite their anonymity, my students may have been nicer in their feedback because of the in-class aspect of the survey, I couldn’t overlook or downplay the fact that their evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Hurrah!

One thing I would do differently in the future: I would give the survey much earlier than I did (end of Week 7), so I would have more time to reverse or revise practices that were not working. Unfortunately, because of the timing, there were certain things I could no longer alter (or, that I have not figured out how to alter without being unfair to half of the class). For example, some students wanted me to nix a presentation assignment, one I admit could have done with a smoother roll out, but which is already in-progress, and which has also stimulated some of our best discussions to date.

I also finally understand what people mean when they tell me I can’t please everyone (in the context of teaching, but also applicable to life in general). For instance, one student asked for more lecture and less discussion in class, while another wanted more debate and group work. Clearly, I can’t do both, so there are some times where I’ll just have to stick to my guns and own my vision for the class.

But I think the very best part for me about all of this is that when I’m feeling down or discouraged about teaching—when I need that little ego boost to help me keep going—I now have a stack of student comments I can read through. Many of them were encouraging in ways that were probably not intended, but which feel that way to me. They show that I have managed to model the things I care most about conveying in the classroom: clarity of concepts and expectations; kindness and helpfulness in accommodating different student needs and temperaments; and respect for my students’ lived experience and multitudes of knowledge and wisdom. My students’ words motivate me and give me confidence in my ability to get up on those hard mornings, stand in front of the classroom, and speak.

Eileen Liang is a doctoral student in Sociology at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.

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