Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Early Course Feedback

Asking students for feedback early in a course can be one of the most effective steps toward improving your teaching because it allows you to respond to the feedback while the course is still in progress.

Four main steps in gathering early course feedback:

  1. Deciding when and how to distribute the forms
  2. Preparing and tabulating the data
  3. Interpreting the results
  4. Discussing the feedback with your class

Deciding when and how to distribute the forms

QUICK TIP: The best time to gather feedback for a course in progress is in the first 4-6 weeks of a full semester course or in the first 2-3 weeks of a mini-semester course. This time frame gives students a reasonable sample of how you teach and how their learning is evaluated to make substantive comments. It allows you time to make adjustments and see their impact.

QUICK TIP: Use a form that allows students to report on issues they consider important to their learning. The following simple, open-ended forms can provide lots of useful comments and suggestions and are appropriate in all types of classes.

Sample early course feedback form:

The Teaching Center has recommended this open-ended approach for many years because:

  • It allows students to report on the issues that they perceive most important.
  • It is also the case that complete sentences and even phrases jotted down by students can offer a rich picture of their experience in the course.
  • you can readily add a question or two to address specific issue(s) you would like to get feedback on.

QUICK TIP: Allow 10-15 minutes at the beginning of a class for students to complete the forms.

If you distribute the forms at the end of a class, many students may have to hurry and you may receive much less information from the open-ended questions.

QUICK TIP: Tell students you want candid and constructive responses.

  • Stress that the only purpose of the form is to help you improve.
  • Emphasize that even a few sentences can give you valuable information.
  • Suggest that students write to you rather than about you.
  • If you will be sharing the feedback with a faculty member, you may want to tell students so that they can phrase their comments appropriately.

QUICK TIP: Let students know that you will talk with them about the main points of the feedback you receive.

This shows them that you are genuinely interested in responding to their comments. Telling students what you learned from their feedback is essential to ensure that students put a good effort into the evaluation process.

Preparing and tabulating the data

QUICK TIP: Tabulate students' comments to find recurring themes and suggestions.

A pile of open-ended responses can seem daunting until the data are organized and structured for interpretation. It is often helpful to:

  • Create a list of reduced versions (phrases) of students' comments.
  • Identify common themes by rearranging these phrases and sorting by topic.
  • Note frequent or related comments.
  • Tally the number of students making each comment.

Remember that there will be areas of consensus and issues with diverse opinions. The areas of consensus will usually be your highest priorities in considering directions for improvement.

Interpreting the results

QUICK TIP: Keep your focus on potentially constructive changes. Many of us tend to dwell on a few criticisms or impractical suggestions. You can avoid this difficulty more easily if you cluster students' comments into groups such as:

  • Strengths
  • Ideas for Change
  • Issues Beyond My Control

If there are items you aren't sure how to interpret, consider consulting the Eberly Center or a faculty member to get an additional perspective.

Discussing the feedback with your class:

QUICK TIP: Don't forget to discuss the results with your class. A critical part of the early course feedback process is:

  • Discussing the feedback you received with your students.
  • Thanking students for their effort and input.
  • Attempting to respond to their feedback will set a positive tone for the class and shows fundamental respect for students' role in making the class work.

QUICK TIP: Select 3-5 issues on which to report to the class.

  • Plan your response so that you balance positive feedback from students and areas where you hope to address their needs more effectively.
  • If you plan to make changes based on the student feedback, explain the changes and the rationale behind them.
  • If a few students requested a change you don't plan to make, help them to understand why it isn't possible.

QUICK TIP: Frame your discussion so that you maintain a positive tone.

It is important not to come across as defensive, angry, or overly apologetic because these reactions can undermine students' trust and respect for you. Sometimes just a few negative comments can make it difficult to stay positive so feel free to contact the Eberly Center if you want talk about the feedback with someone before responding to the class.

QUICK TIP: Consider ways in which you can enlist students' support for your efforts to improve the course.

For example, if students report that you talk too fast or too softly, ask them to let you know nicely (perhaps via a single hand signal) so that you can adjust quickly. Or if students report difficulty understanding the material, you might propose some ideas such as pausing longer, summarizing the main points more often, or encouraging students to ask more questions and discuss what seems most helpful.