93: Harvard University Softens the Emotional Blow of Critical Student Feedback w/ Dr. Joshua Goodman

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Dr. Joshua Goodman, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, joined the podcast to talk about creative ways to soften the emotional blow from critical student evaluations through “summaries”.

Tell me what are the consistent set of constructive criticism that students have so that I get a list of things that it feels like more than one student is concerned about and would like to see change in future years. You're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect Edu podcast network. I'm Eric Olson, AVP of marketing at Helix Education, and we're here today with Dr Joshua Goodman, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. Josh, welcome to the show. Thanks very much for having me. Really excited to talk with you today about creative ways to soften the emotional blow from critical student valuations. Before...

...we dig into that, Josh, can you give the listeners a little bit better understanding of both Harvard and your role there? Right? So, I'm an economist by training and I study education policy for the economics of education and I teach at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. So most of our students are master's degrees to Sudents who are interested in entering the world of public policy, sometimes in education, sometimes in other fields. I also teach doctoral students and undergraduates, so it's a real mixture of students, but all of whom are smart, motivated and, you know, want to make the world a better place. Awesome. Let's dive right in, Josh, to get US started, can you give us an emotional glimpse of what it feels like to receive severely negative student feedback in a course evaluation? Yeah, so let me start by saying that at this point my career I'm a fairly experienced teacher. I most of the courses I teached in most years go pretty well, and so...

...when I read student evaluations of those courses, the vast majority of the comments that students are making are either positive or, if they're critical, they're constructive. But once in a while you know in the middle of all that there will be a particularly negative comment. Sometimes they sort of substance of criticism and sometimes one that feels a little bit more personal. And the pattern that I've noticed over the years and that I've talked to colleagues about, and many of them find this pattern as well, is that even if you get forty nine positive comments and one negative one, you tend, as a teacher, to fixate on the negative one at the expense of the others. Right and and that's a real problem, both because it just takes an emotional toll on factory members but, more importantly, if you're trying to figure out how to use student feedback to modify your teaching in future years, whether it's to keep pieces of your teaching or to change pieces of your teaching, then focusing on the...

...one comment out of fifty that was negative actually might be doing the wrong thing. If you're if you're overly waiting the negative comments, you might not actually be doing the best job you can for future cohorts of students. And so that was my interest in thinking about this. It's thinking about how to read student valuations in a way that maintains the benefit of the feedback that I want to absorb but keeps me from being overly focused on the negative parts that don't matter as much. Yeah, so talk us through this potential solution you've devised in receiving a summary of this constructive criticism, with any personal attacks either removed or anonymized. That's right. So, so this came about a couple of years ago when I felt very lucky to have an administrative assistant whom I trusted and to do this work. And what I asked her to do is I gave her my student evaluations before I ever read them, and I basically said...

...to her, would you mind taking the comments of students have made and basically sort them into three buckets? The first book it is take the positive comments they say and just copy them word for words, so I can see, you know, some of the good things that happened and it'll give me a little boost of energy to go into this for next year. So keep those positive comments you know, word for word. I want to see them. For constructive criticisms, don't quote them word for word, try to extract some schemes from them. Tell me what are the consistent set of constructive criticisms that students have so that I get a list of things that it feels like more than one student is concerned about and would like to see changed in future years. And I'll see those, but they won't be phrased in language that's verbatim. It'll be a summary of those enough for me to act on but not enough that it will that I'll be concerned about the precise language. And then there's a third category of sort of criticisms that are not constructive, criticisms of...

...the form that might be over the personal, or just criticisms that they're nothing I can do about that and that, as a result, there's not much use in me seeing. All that will happen is I will dwell on those negative words but I won't be able to do anything about them, so it will just spoil the next week of my life with no benefit to anyone. So take that third category and don't show them to me. And I want to be clear just when I say this that our students on average are extraordinarily thoughtful about the feedback they give, and so those kind of genuinely nasty comments, at least in this context, are extremely rare. And so in some sense for me that the major benefit of this process is really in taking the constructive criticisms which, even if they're constructive, can still sometimes feel quite personal in the in the way in which they are criticizing you. As a fact member, take those and summarize them and make them just feel a little less...

...emotionally hot, but retain the information that I need to act on them. Yeah, can you give us a hypothetical example of what a negative critique might sound like before screening and then after that emotional brunt has been removed? Yeah, so as one example last year. So I actually went back and I read some of my evaluation specifically to think about this question, having seen my assistant summary, and one example was one student made a comment that was something like Dr Goodman was, you know, never available or was very difficult to find outside of class, and that was the end of the quote. When I read that, this is, as I said, a sort of a year after the fact, I felt terrible about this. I was also confused because I actually run a ton of office hours. But but as I sort of read the comment more, it was clear that whatever office hours I were running didn't work with that student schedule. But but what my assistant had done was to summarize that comment. As you know, please make sure that you...

...are available to all student and of all scheduled outside of class. And that very neutral framing, that neutral summary from my assistant I read. I didn't feel bad about that at all. I just thought, AH, that's an important thing for me to absorb and I have to figure out how next year I can work on that. But reading the the students direct comment made me feel like I had let that individual student down and they were angry about it and that that sort of sensing that angered didn't really help me in any constructive way to build on a comment for next year. Yeah, I love that example and I feel like it requires an assistant or a friend or appear with a good editorial sense. Are there any concerns that softening the criticism will soften any perceived seriousness of the issue when you see that feedback? Yeah, it's a very good question. So I take seriously the concern that sometimes student anger or frustration comes from a real place that needs to be listened to. And so for me this system, I think, worked well because I had someone...

...who could help me with this, whom I trusted, and I was very explicit in my instructions that. It's not that I didn't want criticism, I just wanted summaries and not verbatim criticism. And so I think the key thing to think about is you know, do you have the faculty member? Have someone in your life that you trust enough, first of all, to read these evaluations that are quite personal in some ways? Do you have someone in your life that you can trust up to read these evaluations and that you trust to give you an honest summary of what they contain? And so, for me, I had an assistant that I was very lucky to have. If I hadn't had that person, I might have thought of turning to a fellow faculty member and maybe sort of agreeing to swap tasks with them that you know, I read your evaluations if you read mine, and we can do this for each other. You know, in theory, I could have maybe gone to my wife and asked her to do this, or some other adults in my life who was capable of it. I think that the key is not what particular job the this partner has, but can you find someone whom you...

...trust to do this in a constructive way? I was super intrigued by this concept and and I'm curious if you see the psychological benefits of this kind of summary Critique in other settings. I'm thinking employee exit interviews, three hundred and sixty degree feedback in more corporate environments. Yeah. So I think the general lesson here, or the the place that this advice comes from or this idea comes from, is that I think many of us, not all of us, but many of us, react to negative criticisms much more strongly than we do to positive feedback, to the point where we can make the wrong decisions about ourselves because we are so focused on even small critiques. And so I think the broader point here is to think about how do you give feed back in a way that the recipient of that feedback correctly weights the positives and the negative doesn't overweight the negatives, for example, and and I think that's applicable...

...in a you know, you know a wide range of settings and it's not just an issue of teachers and students. Josh, really good stuff. Any next steps? Advice for other institutions, other faculty looking to better separate the personal attacks from their constructive criticism? Yeah, I think, as I said, I think my most general piece of advices it would be it's great if you, as a facty member, can find someone in your professional life, in your department, whether that's a an assistant and administrative assistant, teaching assistant, a fellow faculty member, some other departmental employee. If you can find someone like that who could provide the service for you or with whom you could swap these services, that would be great. I would love to see in general, academic departments think more seriously about how to make student feedback useful to faculty members. I think right now often that student feedback is done in a somewhat gets done at the process that everyone recognizes should happen, but then the...

...actual act of taking that student feedback and using it to improve instruction is not always very systematically thought out in many departments, and so I think if departments are serious about this, they need to devote some resources to making that happen. Josh, thanks so much for your time today. What's the best place for listeners to connect with you if they have any follow up questions? Thank I stul. The best place is probably on twitter. My handle is at Joshua F Goodman and I often have conversations with people in through that medium on a variety of academic issues, including teaching. He is a great follow folks. Thanks against so much for joining us today, Josh, my pleasure. Eric, thanks for having me. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix...

...has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges, downloaded today for free at Helix educationcoms playbook. You've been listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show and Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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