After returning from extended leave a while ago, I found myself in the position of reading my 2016 SFS results while I thought about how I’d be modifying my subjects this year. I’ve endured many a student survey (both as a student and an academic) which I’d hope would make dealing with SFS results a breeze. Unfortunately I still feel as nervous as I was as a kid when waiting for audition results!

Why so nervous? Well, we academics on a whole tend to be a high-achieving perfectionistic bunch. The only survey results that would satisfy me would be a bunch of 5’s and comments including terms such as “outstanding”, “excellent” and “exceptional”. But in a complicated thing such as a university subject with many unknowns and some circumstances out of my control, it’s inevitable things won’t be perfect. Students are like bloodhounds when it comes to finding those imperfections…but it is their job. The point of the subject is to assist their learning, not mine!

The SFS information can be really valuable for improving the learning experience for the next cohort of students. Your favourite search engine will give you any number of recommendations on implementation of student feedback but here I’ve listed here a few of my tips for coping with the SFS revelations.

Prepare yourself

For some this may mean equipping themselves with pinot noir and camembert. My personal preference is Bach and posh French Earl Grey (the faculty-provided Lipton’s sawdust really doesn’t cut it). I do whatever I need to get myself into a calm state of mind before the onslaught begins.

Ready? Okay, now we go to the PQU page and read the reports. Of course, I tend to gloss over the good results and fixate on my “failures” leading to much grief…

The five stages of grief

1. Denial – I stick to my preferred reality in which I delivered a perfect course. “These students weren’t paying enough attention – I gave brilliant feedback!”
2. Anger – I get frustrated. “It’s not fair! These new 11 week semesters just don’t work!”
3. Bargaining – I try to avoid the cause of grief. “If I take these comments praising the workshop activity and use them to cancel out the comments criticising the same activity…”
4. Depression – I lose all hope. “What’s the point. Biology students will never enjoy studying physics.”
5. Acceptance – Hooray I’ve made it to acceptance! “All right, there are improvements I can make.”

Ignore the dodgy

There will always be a few comments that cross the line and give me nightmares. “Dr D is hot”, “Sack Dr D, she is useless”, “I can’t stand her accent”. Some students use their anonymity as an excuse to forgo all social etiquette. Share these comments with a friend, have a good laugh and then forget about them (the comments, not the friend).

Note: I have just been informed that the PQU has a mechanism for malicious comment suppression – that might be worth a shot.

Maintain perspective

Some would say you need to develop a thick skin, however I’d argue this implies a callousness and disregard for how the students felt about their experiences. Their thoughts and feelings are still valid and should affect us because they and we are humans. The advice “don’t take things personally” is nonsense – of course the students are making personal comments, they’re not talking about the general state of the world. They are commenting on my communication style, my choices about their learning activities, my leadership of the casual teaching team, my provision of feedback…

Instead, I’d advise maintaining perspective. Sure my subject attracted some criticism. It’s not the end of the world that my subject wasn’t a perfect fit for the students (this is a hard one to swallow!). Reframe the situation – the criticism can be used to improve the subject! My subject was also praised and those comments can help me focus on parts of the subject that are working well. Besides, as I write this blog entry I’m giggling as my cat plays chicken with my grab-happy baby at my feet. There’s more to me and my life than my students’ responses.

  • This is great Annette – very useful for feedback of all sorts (including the U:PASS feedback I am currently getting) 🙂

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