As we are rapidly approaching the halfway point of my first semester back in the classroom on a full-time basis, I am often finding that the lessons I learn from my classes are clearly applicable to how to be a better leader/manager. My interactions with younger people are energizing me and opening my eyes to how working with students is much like working with constituencies of an organization or business.
While I think it was more subconscious in the past, I am consciously thinking of my students as having key similarities to both customers and employees. Therefore, I am trying to do things in my classroom that both customers and employees find satisfying, and one of the most satisfying things is feedback. However, it is not just providing feedback, it is also soliciting feedback. Feedback, as you will see below, needs to be a two-way street.
Since it has been a number of years since I have taught multiple full-semester courses, I was somewhat anxious as to how I would do in the classroom in providing my students with a positive learning experience. In my graduate (MBA) class, most of my students are “working professionals,” trying to balance their job and family responsibilities with their degree program. For my undergraduates, many of the students themselves are working jobs to help pay for their schooling, and/or their parents are investing in their educations. In both of the cases, I feel a responsibility to give these students a good return on their significant investment of both time and money. As the semester has progressed, I felt like things were going well, but I also knew that was my perspective, and I needed to know more.
I have taught at five higher education institutions, including Augusta University (AU), in my career, and at all of them, students are asked to evaluate their courses/instructors at the end of each term. They are provided anonymous surveys, now completed online, that ask the students to provide numerical ratings of the course and the instructor on a number of questions. In addition, the students are typically also given the opportunity to provide narrative feedback about the course and instructor.
While some of my colleagues disagree, I have typically found this feedback extremely helpful, both for myself and for helping faculty who I supervised to improve their teaching. However, since it comes at the end of the term, while it helps us improve our future classes, it does not provide any benefit to those giving the feedback. Therefore, in my years of teaching, I have learned how to mostly remedy this issue and this remedy was especially necessary as I returned to the classroom after a long layoff.
In order to make sure my classes are providing an appropriate learning experience for my students, I have found it important to ask for earlier feedback from them. Therefore, approximately 5 to 6 weeks into the semester, just past the one-third point of the term, I ask them to answer three very simple questions anonymously.
Those three questions are:
1) What do you like about the class?
2) What don’t you like about the class?
3) What recommended changes would you make to the class to make it a better learning experience for the rest of the semester?
For me (and the students), I believe anonymity is important, so that they will not hold back on negative feedback, as that is most important to me in order to improve, but students might fear giving it, thinking it might adversely affect their grades.
The next class after collecting the feedback (for my classes this semester, one week later), I report back to them the results and they are interested in hearing the feedback. In this semester, there was much consistency within each class, with overall satisfaction very high, but some clear things that could be improved. The students, for the most part, gave me thoughtful recommendations on how to make the classes better.
In addition to learning much from the students, this gave me the opportunity to show them that I was listening to them. Some of the recommendations were excellent and relatively easy to implement for the second half of the semester. However, another benefit of this feedback exercise was to explain why there were some things I could not or would not change, but it gave me the opportunity to explain to them my rationale for doing so. This allowed me to communicate better with them because it demonstrated that I understood their concerns, but that I also could address that there were pedagogical reasons for not making certain changes.
Allowing my students to give me feedback was a positive experience for both them and me. In most of their classes, they are accustomed to only getting feedback on how they performed, but without the ability to provide the instructor with feedback on how he or she could perform better. This allows the students to have more input on their learning experience and be treated like both a valued customer and a valued employee.
Managers and leaders of businesses and other organizations can learn from this experience. Employees who are only provided feedback on their performance without the ability to provide feedback on their work environment or other issues that might be impeding their performance will likely have less satisfaction. Allow your employees to have such feedback mechanisms, some of which are anonymous, to give you the opportunity to learn how you might better manage and lead.
Similarly, while firms often solicit customer feedback, it is important to have mechanisms in place to explain why you are unable to do some of the things your customer’s desire. Knowing that you are hearing them and letting them know your constraints is better than having them think you are just ignoring their feedback.
I am certainly learning much from students this semester and I hope sharing some of my experiences can help you and your business as well!