Some Feedback on Course Feedback

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The Course Feedback System is something most of us don’t really pay much attention to; for many of us it is simply a few clicks of the button “No”; part of an unfathomable bureaucratic requirement to give feedback at the end of the semester. This system in its current form seems ineffectual to a large part of the student body.

What we aim to do here is to talk about the problems, some remedial solutions, and the Establishment’s take on the process.

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In true Insight fashion, we decided to gauge the problems plaguing the methodology of students staring at their laptops and opining by, wait for it, asking students to stare at their laptops and opine.

Our online survey that posed pertinent questions to feel the pulse of the Institute received 529 responses.

Drawbacks of the current feedback form

  1. The length of the form is an issue.

    88% of respondents felt that the form was inordinately lengthy, and was almost as bad as someone using “inordinately lengthy” to signify “too long”.

    In fact, the questions towards the end on “classroom infrastructure” make little sense to the students filling the form, since this seems like information that the instructor can do little with. Such questions could plausibly be culled without any loss of information.

    A consequence of this length is that students don’t end up filling forms for all their courses (they exercise their right to click “No”), and even those that they do fill are not always an honest reflection of their thoughts as much as a treatise on “Least pixels travelled by mouse while filling feedback form”.
    Only 36% of the respondents to our survey said they filled feedback for more than four-fifths of their courses honestly.

  2. The questions seem repetitive.

    66% of our sample (Which means ~ 66*(529/100) = 350 respondents) testified to perceiving redundancy in the questions.

    For example:
    Q: Textbooks and/or other reference/resource materials were easily available.
    Q: The textbooks and/or other reference/resource materials were relevant.

    While a logician would agree with the necessity of both these questions, when a student pressed for time is trying to fill in all her feedback forms before the deadline that is 15 minutes away, (s)he only wonders what use it would be for the Instructor to know that irrelevant textbooks and reference material were easily available. Is that not always true anyway?

    Insight suggests clubbing these two questions together (as can be done with several others). In fact, this can be done while enlarging the scope that this question can address by having an optional comment box next to each “multiple choice type” rating. What this does is enable any student with relevant feedback on a topic tangentially connected to the question to get their opinion into the system.

    One problem here is that it makes interpreting the data a marginally tougher task for the Instructor.

  3. There is the same form for each course. No personalization towards a particular course

    It seems reasonable that if each instructor populates the feedback form with questions that are relevant and pertinent to their particular course, more useful information can be extracted from the students.

    An unintended (but no less significant) benefit of this move would be to make filling out different forms much less monotonous for the students. Monotony is a strong factor in students filling out a few feedback forms diligently and then clicking on “No” for the rest with a lazy “Ditch rahega”.

  4. In cases where a course is taught by 2 or more instructors (BB101, HS 101) students have to fill the form twice or more times for one course.

    In such cases, when at times each instructor has taught for only close to 4 weeks, the cost benefit analysis carried out by the student responding makes it clear that spending 30 minutes on just one course is not worth the effort.

    More often than not, students end up filling up the form for just one instructor, who is picked by the slightly unscientific criterion called “I really really liked (or hated) this professor”.

    In fact, 52% of the respondents to our survey used the criterion of strong feelings for or against the Professor to help whittle down the list of Instructors whose feedback form they will fill out, and only 30% said they fill out all forms seriously and painstakingly.

  5. No feedback for labs

    One aspect in which the current feedback system is sorely lacking is a way to provide feedback to Lab Instructors. There is so much to be said about so many labs in terms of effort to credit ratio and about how useful or dull the Lab was. There is also a case to be made that this ratio is highly variable across departments and also across time within the same department.

    Every incoming batch of freshmen is faced with a grueling initiation to life at IIT-Bombay in the guise of Engineering Drawing without any avenue to voice their opinions.

    A mechanism to take in feedback for Labs, though, is a double-edged sword. It would make what is already a long and seemingly unrewarding feedback process even longer.

    When asked to comment on this matter, Abhishek Khadiya (GSAA UG) said this problem was being tackled and that a concise feedback form for labs would be floated at the end of each semester from the current semester onwards.

  6. “Kya hoga mere feedback ka”

    As it stands, the feedback process is akin to a blind man speaking in a public square with, ironically, no feedback on whether his opinions are being heeded or even heard.

    Students do not know if Professors have to face the music for consistently poor feedback, or if Professors even deign to glance at the feedback they submit. In the absence of visible outcomes, there is no incentive for students to eke out 10 minutes for each course and sincerely fill the feedback form.

    When asked to comment, the Dean of Academic Programmes assured Insight that individual faculty do read the feedback, especially the comments section, very carefully and try to improve matters. To address the concerns implicit in the factoid that only 2% respondents feel their feedback makes a sizeable difference in how the course is run the next time, he was of the opinion that feedback was always accepted by professional academics; improvements would only happen over a period of time.

    But. But. Things aren’t as bleak as students perceive. It turns out that one place where student feedback does matter is in deciding the recipients of the Excellence in Teaching awards.

    And more pertinently for the student body, during faculty evaluations on the basis of teaching, the main criterion considered is the feedback by students. This is discussed with faculty who perform poorly and in extreme cases, where warranted, the Head of Department, the Director, and other institute functionaries have the power examine teaching records with due authorization and take necessary action.

    Khadiya also said that there is a plan in the offing to help spread awareness among the student community about how their feedback does not go to waste. This should help bridge the gap between the two stakeholders in the feedback process.

Suggestions to the Institute

There is definitely a case to be made that course feedback form should be revamped. While Insight does not necessarily endorse the suggestions listed below, we certainly believe these have enough merit to warrant a discussion on their pros and cons.

  1. Having both Half Sem and End Sem evaluation

    All questions on the existing feedback could be categorized into two sets- questions on the course structure, evaluation of quizzes, ambience, course coverage could be asked in the first half and questions on how the Professor taught, handling of queries and other questions centred on the Professor’s teaching style could be asked in the End Sem evaluation.

    The idea is that some parameters can be gauged very quickly while others require time.
    Having such an evaluation would ensure that the form is short and would encourage more responses.

    77% of respondents think that an evaluation after the midsem would incentivise honest feedback by ensuring that their effort would benefit themselves too.

  2. Reducing each student’s effort

    For large class sizes of say 150 people, groups of 3 could be arbitrarily formed. Each group could be assigned a particular set of questions to fill up. This would solve the problem of both the lengthy nature of the feedback form and the redundancy of questions in the form, in one go.

    An argument could be made, however, questioning the unbiased nature of responses from a group of (just) 50 people.

  3. Making the feedback public

    Putting the feedback out in the public domain will put the onus on the faculty to take corrective action. Once such an action is taken, it will act as a motivator for students to fill feedback, as they would see tangible results arising from what they submitted.

    However, students can be quite vitriolic while filling out the subjective section of the feedback form. Unnecessarily harsh and unfairly vindictive comments would not further the cause of submitting feedback, but rather antagonise the professors.

    A way out could be to make the feedback public but omit the subjective part. Also, only the
    final numerical score- calculated on the basis of responses to individual questions- could be provided, and not the question-by-question summary of the feedback. Such a tradeoff would appease the professors while ensuring corrective action can be taken.

    When this point was taken up with Khadiya, he said that this has been brought up in the UGPC meetings and has been rejected by Professors since it will discourage faculty and highlight egregious cases unduly.

Conclusion

There is no argument that the the current feedback mechanism is inadequate in serving its purpose.

Riddled with irrelevant questions, the lengthy format dissuades students from filling it up. The number of questions need to be reduced and the format overhauled to ensure more students fill the feedback form honestly and after giving it sufficient thought.

The current system, since it does not provide tangible carrots, but only tangible sticks (not getting your grade), does not incentivize students to go the extra mile.

We would like to end by noting that 23% of respondents also said that they fill their feedback forms “right before the deadline”. This, in contrast to an option that stated “1-2 days before the deadline”. One can only think that as students we must meet the authorities halfway and ensure we fill in the forms with ample time to ensure thoughtful and meaningful feedback reaches the Professors. One can take a horse to Powai Lake, but the horse must drink the water itself.

Notions which Insight would love to hear your opinion on are whether it is a good idea to have some sort of mechanism to provide feedback to TAs. The quality of TAs (especially for freshmen courses) is highly variable across divisions and across time.
Thoughts on mechanisms for or unintended consequences of such a move are welcome.