The IDEA Blog



Read the thoughts and impressions on a variety of topics written by IDEA staff as well as occasional guest bloggers.

Teaching Students to Give Useful Qualitative Feedback
November 28, 2017

Guest Blogger: Dr. Ellen J. Zeman, Learning Assessment Director, Champlain College

We have learned, since we began offering bonus credit to Champlain’s adult students for completing online course surveys, that extrinsic motivation—a tangible reward—can work wonders to improve our IDEA SRI response rate (See Culture and Commitment: The Why and the How of High SRI Response Rates at Champlain College, IDEA Blog, April 11, 2016). It's important, however, not to ignore the power of intrinsic motivation (Caulfield, 2007). Sharing how and why we use their feedback to develop our teaching practice is a meaningful way to encourage students not to merely go through the motions, but to take the time to make thoughtful comments about their learning experience, comments that will be helpful and actionable.

Even though faculty consider student comments to be the most useful part of student ratings reports, students only seldom provide constructive feedback when responding to open-ended questions. The reason for this is twofold: (1) students believe that their effort will not lead to change and (2) students often don't know how (Svinicki, 2001).

One of the most convincing ways to encourage students to provide good feedback is to show them evidence of how you use or have used student feedback. A myth common among students related to student ratings surveys is that "no one reads these things." To bust that myth, you can share examples of how you have used student feedback in the past to inform changes you've made to teaching methods, assignments or learning activities.

You can guide students to offer helpful comments by asking them questions designed to provoke thoughtful responses. Adding your own question(s) to the IDEA form is a guaranteed way to gather specific and actionable feedback. To promote reflection, it is important to give the same level of attention to designing course evaluation questions that you would to writing essay prompts or exam questions (Weimer 2013).

Learning to Give Actionable Feedback

To learn how to give actionable feedback, students need to see good examples (see Svinicki, 2001), they need to practice, and they need to receive feedback on their feedback (!). You can share examples of useful and not-so-useful student comments. (See these examples from U Michigan.) You can give students the opportunity to practice by seeking their feedback throughout the semester. You can respond to feedback by explaining to students the ways in which mid-semester pointers were and were not helpful to you. Offering students the opportunity to provide feedback during the semester sends a strong message that you care about their learning, motivates them to offer helpful observations, and increases their engagement in the class.

Madeleine Elfenbein provides useful guidance for motivating and teaching students how to give actionable feedback in her recent Inside Higher Ed article (Elfenbein, 2015). She recommends explaining to students:

  • Your feedback matters.
  • This is how I use your feedback to improve my teaching.
  • The best feedback is specific and relevant to my teaching.
  • Gendered praise is not helpful.
  • Evaluate me the same way you would like me to evaluate you.
  • Writing evaluations is hard, but it’s for the greater good.

We also can teach our students how to give formative feedback by modeling good practice when we provide feedback to them. Grant Wiggins (2012) defines good feedback as having these seven characteristics:

  • Goal-referenced
  • Tangible
  • Transparent
  • Actionable
  • User-friendly
  • Timely and ongoing
  • Consistent

(see this explanation of each)

Feedback, as Grant Wiggins has said, is not advice or judgment, but rather “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal” (Wiggins 2012). The bottom line is that, in order to give you good feedback, students need to know your goals for their learning. Ensuring that students know the course learning outcomes—by making them prominent in your syllabus, by referring to those learning outcomes frequently throughout the course, and by integrating IDEA Objectives language into your course learning outcomes—will prompt your students to give you actionable, “goal referenced” feedback.


Elizabeth Carney, Preparing Students to Take Course Evaluations: Tips for Faculty, Office of Assessment of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University.

Johnette Caulfield, What Motivates Students to Provide Feedback to Teachers About Teaching and Learning? An Expectancy Theory Perspective, International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 1: No. 1, Article 7, 2007.

Madeleine Elfenbein, Teaching Students to Evaluate Us Better, Inside Higher Ed, October 1, 2015.

Marilla D. Svinicki, Encouraging Your Students to Give Feedback, in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 87, Fall 2001, Wiley.

University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, Course Evaluations: Providing Helpful Feedback to Your Instructors

Maryellen Weimer, Course Evaluations: Helping Students Reflect on Their Feedback, Faculty Focus, April 3, 2013.

Grant Wiggins, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, Educational Leadership, Vol 70, No 1, September 2012.

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