March 6, 2013

Instructor Feedback

by Nina Cimino, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Suburban Hospital

As a recent pharmacy school graduate, a current student of educational theory and practice, and as an aspiring teacher, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the transition from student to teacher.  As a student, I relied heavily on feedback to improve my performance.  As I continue learning about educational theory and looking for strategies to improve as a teacher in the classroom, I wondered how feedback fits into faculty self-reflection and development.  This topic has been receiving attention in the media, with Bill Gates advocating for more meaningful and frequent feedback to teachers as a tool to improve classroom instruction and educational outcomes.1  Watch this video of Bill Gates discussing his ideas with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

During formal educational activities, students receive feedback from their instructors in a variety of formats:  

  • Graded assignments and examinations provide feedback about a student’s mastery of course material
  • Verbal feedback from faculty members provides suggestions for improvement
  • Guidance during classroom discussions encourages students to engage with course material
  • Encouragement from faculty members provides positive reinforcement and motivation
  • Re-direction (when necessary) helps student identify areas for improvement

These sources of feedback all help learners determine if they understand course materials, are thinking rationally about concepts, and promotes self-reflection on ways to improve learning and understanding.  Once learners are no longer formal students in a classroom and assume the role of teacher, what are the sources of feedback to help them improve?

While many instructors receive feedback from students in the form of course evaluations, issues other than the effectiveness of a particular instructor may influence student evaluations.2  Students are admittedly biased by their own performance.  Their perceived success can impact their course evaluation, even though factors other than instructor effectiveness contributed to their performance.  While student feedback is one source of valuable information for teachers, other sources can also be valuable in promoting instructor self-reflection and improvement.

Northeastern University School of Pharmacy recently implemented a tool for peer observation and evaluation of faculty members.3  Faculty members received formal training on how to provide peer feedback from the University’s Center for Effective University Teaching and were asked to serve as a peer observer for a colleague’s large-group teaching activity.  The peer observation and evaluation process consisted of four components:
  • A pre-observation meeting to discuss the objectives of the class session
  • Classroom observation (one observation annually)
  • A post-observation meeting to discuss the instructor’s self-reflection of his or her performance and the observer’s positive and constructive feedback (2-3 strengths and 2-3 areas for improvement were required)
  • A post-student assessment meeting to assess the students’ achievement after completion of examinations and/or assignments

Surveys of faculty members before and after implementation of the peer observation program indicated that instructors found the program to be beneficial for improving their teaching.3  The majority of instructors who participated in the program (87%) reported making changes to some elements of their teaching (e.g. content, teaching methods, and/or assessment). In addition, 83% of participants agreed or strongly agreed “peer assessment is a better measurement of teaching effectiveness then [sic] student evaluations.”  The majority of participants also agreed that the benefits of participating in the peer observation and evaluation program outweighed the time commitment required.

In addition to student evaluations and peer observation programs, focus groups may also be used to gather information from students regarding the effectiveness of a teacher, course, or an entire educational program.4  While focus groups are not as easy to administer as traditional student evaluation surveys, they are particularly useful for exploring patterns or issues that arise during students’ evaluation of a teacher.  In addition to identifying student perceptions of a teacher’s effectiveness, focus groups allow for a facilitator to ask follow up questions in order to gain insight into issues identified by students.3

It is well recognized that feedback helps students identify strengths and areas for improvement, as well as promoting student self-assessment of their learning.  Providing instructors with feedback from multiple sources would arguably have similar benefits.  Student evaluations of courses and instructor effectiveness is undeniably important, but peer observation and evaluation, as well as student focus groups, can provide additional information that student evaluations simply don’t capture.  Focus groups allow for in-depth exploration of issues identified by students.  Feedback from a peer who understands the challenges faced based by instructors and who can offer suggestions for improvement based on personal experiences and successes would be invaluable.  These alternative feedback mechanisms are useful not only for instructors who are new to the profession but also seasoned instructors.

1.  Miks J. "Bill Gates on What Makes a Good Teacher." Global Public Square RSS. Cable News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2013.

2. The value and limitations of student ratings.  The Ideas Center, Inc.  Accessed on:  March 5, 2013.

3.  DiVall M., Barr J, Gonyeau M., et al.  Follow-up assessment of a faculty peer observation and evaluation programAm J Pharm Educ 2012; 76, article 61. 

4.  Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. Using Focus Groups to Get Student Feedback. Carnegie Mellon: Enhancing Education. Carnegie Mellon University. Web. Accessed on:  Feb 25, 2013.

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