How being unsatisfied with my student’s feedback score changes the way I teach

Prior to joining an academic, I have trained end-users on how to make use of the systems that my team has developed rather successfully. In those days, the way I measure success was by asking participants for feedback on the course content, venue and instructor’s effectiveness. There are many standard forms for such kind of training assessment available in the market. Most of them attempt to assess whether the instructor is knowledgeable, approachable, clear in its delivery and etc.

When I became an academic in SUSS in 2013, the same format of student’s feedback seems to prevail also in a University environment. The feedback questions asked are, in my view, still largely about whether the teacher helps the students to learn, if he/she is approachable and etc. The feedback is based on a 5-point scale and I often got an average score of 4. For a teacher who was just starting out, I thought 4 wasn’t too bad. In fact, for anyone to get 4 and above on average would need 1/2 the class to rate me a 3.5 and the other 1/2 rate me a 4.5.  I still recalled that my goal back then was to aim for a 4.5 average which technically translated to 1/2 of the class giving me a 5 while the other a 4 on average. After two years of hard work, I was able to rather consistently achieve that kind of average (around 4.4 – 4.7) on all the courses that I have taught. Of course, at that time, I thought I have been an above-average teacher and I was proud of this achievement.

Learning Analytics of my Student’s Learning Using Plickers

As I matured as a teacher, I became increasingly not satisfied with my feedback score despite them being consistently above 4.4. This is because of two key reasons. First, I began to realize that such quantitative measurement of a teacher’s effectiveness can be achieved for as long as the teacher is caring enough for the students.  If a teacher remains approachable, is clear in his/her delivery, is knowledgeable and most importantly care for his/her students well being and learning, then students will return this favour by giving you a rating of 4 and above.  I still recalled vividly one insightful conversation that I had with my colleagues just a day or two after the release of the student’s feedback score. Both of us taught in the same course and I was jokingly telling her that the student’s feedback score was nothing more than a caring index, i.e. an index that measures student’s perception of how much you care about their learning.

However, as a teacher, I can’t help to question myself if my students have really learned something useful after attending my class. A small number of qualitative feedback from students did highlight to me that some students in my class were struggling with their learning but because the quantitive feedback score was good, I largely ignored it. But this tinkering thought never really goes away. I was constantly being haunted by the question: ‘Did my students really learn the knowledge and skills that I want them to acquire in class?’

This question propels me to get out of my comfort zone. In 2015, 2 years after becoming an academic, I began to experiment with different techniques and technologies to help me collect student’s learning analytics. It is not an easy attempt. I have to think really hard about the design of my learning activities and assessments (especially formative assessments) to help me uncover insights into student’s learning. It is even harder when I joined NUS in 2016 to teach a course that I am not an expert in. In several cases, my teaching feedback scores took a nose dive towards the worst. It was a depressing and frustrating moment for any teacher. But I persisted.

Learning Activity Output to Help me Understand Student’s Understanding of a Subject

I attended courses after courses in teaching and learning to soap up all the literature and evidence-based intervention in teaching and learning. And the eureka moment arrived. I came across the idea of constructive alignment in AY16/17 semester 2 while attending the Professional Development Programme in Teaching in NUS. I reinforced my knowledge in this area by attending a coursera course on University Teaching and I started applying my knowledge in this area to test the alignment of my learning activities and assessments in achieving the intended learning outcomes stated in my course. After 1 year of experimentation, I can answer a convincing yes to the question that I haunted me since 2015.  I have many proofs of my students’ learning on the subject that I am teaching in class and I have to thank many people (especially those hard-working people in CDTL, NUS) for opening up my horizon and helping me to develop a scholarly approach to my teaching and learning practices.

The road ahead is still long. But I am comforted by the fact that I have found the constructive alignment as one of the guiding principles for my teaching and learning practices.


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