Dealing with Student Feedback

So the results of my unofficial survey are in. For the most part, students seem to be enjoying my Media Ethics course, which has been designed to introduce them to the concept of ethics and the myriad ethical debates that swirl around the modern media.  Thus far, we have talked about some abstract philosophical approaches to ethics (ethical rationalism, ethical relativism, and utilitarianism featured prominently), and discussed race, gender, and violence in the media as case studies. From here, we will move to advertising and then onto topics related first to globalization, and finally to democracy and surveillance.

While I’m glad that students are engaging with the course material, it is hardly surprising that they still had critiques and suggestions. Therefore, what I want to do today is talk a little bit about what I’m not willing to change, where I’ll make concessions, and why.


Stubborn like a goat!

Stubborn like a goat!


1. Anything that is Predetermined by the Syllabus
As we all know, the syllabus functions as a contract between teachers and our students. Once it has been distributed, it’s pretty much set in stone and many institutions technically required the signed consent of every student in the class in order to alter it. I want my students to be able to trust the material that is there, and to trust that I put time into designing the course in a way that makes sense. Just as I can’t go back in time and alter what we’ve already done, I won’t jump into the future and assume that topics or readings which I have listed simply won’t work as a lesson plan before we’ve tried them out.

2. What is Permissible in Class Discussion
This was a much more difficult decision for me because, on occasion, students can express opinions which I too find troubling. After all, it’s an ethics class. This means that above and beyond the usual difficulty of coaxing students into seeing the world from different points of view, everyone in the room is always asking: what is the right thing to do? At times, someone will share an opinion that gives the rest of us pause – to say the least – and at least once, that opinion has caused offense to someone else. I was therefore expecting more students to mention this in their reviews, but there was only one brave soul who went there. Said individual felt it absolutely necessary to bring it to my attention that I had a duty as the authority figure in the room to tell people when the opinion which they had expressed was inappropriate.

I sympathize, I really do. And yet I simply cannot bring myself to alter the dynamics of our discussion periods, and here’s why. For starters, the room has to remain a safe space wherein people feel they can express their true opinions. If they are later convinced that their preconceived ideas need to be altered, that’s great; but they fundamentally need to be able to tell us what they think and not feel forced into silence for fear of being ostracized. Furthermore, even if a student says something that veers into truly questionable territory, it is far more effective if their peers attempt to convince them and to change their mind than if I try to do so. As an authority figure, my voice can actually be counter-productive in these moments, and trying to outlaw certain perspectives simple stifles the discussion, fosters resentment, and doesn’t change anyone’s mind.

Playing nice - even if it's awkward.

Playing nice – even if it’s awkward.


1. PowerPoints
Regular readers will know that my PowerPoint slides are minimalist, to say the least. They serve only as a rough guideline, providing headers that students can use organize their notes as well as a sense of scale that helps them study for tests. How much information a teacher does or does not put on their PowerPoints is always a source of contention, at any level, and so most of the time I stick to my guns when it comes to slide design and go with my gut. If you can’t ever please people, you might as well go with what feels right to you, right? And besides, I do have my reasons for doing what I do. As I keep telling my students, not everything in life comes with ready-made slides that tell you everything you were supposed to take from a conversation and in what form. If we want to be critical thinkers and active citizens of the world, we need to learn how to organize the information we receive – to categorize, prioritize, and generally make sense of it.

So why I am giving in? Well, first of all, I’m not entirely giving in and I have decided to compromise instead of cave. This means I will put slightly more information on my slides – mostly, full definitions of key terms – but not absolutely everything that I say. I’m still not sure this is the right thing to do, but these students are still learning to deal with the lecture format, so they require a little more help than university students. And if I’m still careful not to put everything on the slides, they will still have to learn the art of note-taking, just with some of the anxiety removed. I remain highly ambivalent about doing this, but I am willing to give it a try.

2. Readings
As expected, many people commented that the readings are either too hard, or too long. That said, I do have to give credit where credit is due and thank the kindly student who, after complaining about the readings, conceded that things always make more sense after we talk about them in class.

Since the readings are part of the syllabus, I’m not going to change them now. I also don’t think it is unreasonable to make students have to do some very short, if difficult, reading. What I am willing to do – and what I have already started doing – is emailing out guiding questions after each class. These questions will then help students engage with the reading that is due for the next class.  This should help students who are still developing their critical reading skills to identify what is important, and get them thinking about some of the questions that we might discuss in class. I have done this in the past, and it has worked well, and I really don’t know why I stopped. I’m therefore very hopeful that this will pan out.

3. Audio-Visual Materials
Many students requested more video clips, advertisements, and other non-print media. It just so happens that it’s their lucky day, and these materials have already been integrated into several upcoming lectures. I am just as eager to talk about this material as they are; however, some subjects lend themselves better to this phenomenon than others. Materials have to actually add something to the learning experience – I refuse to insert fluffy, useless material into my class, just to make people happy. Therefore, while there will be lots of this type of content for the upcoming lectures on advertising, or social media, it will be harder to incorporate them when talking about the theoretical relationship between journalism and democracy. It remains to be seen if they feel like I’m doing enough, but I feel like they understand the balancing act, even if they don’t always like the outcome.

Overall, I’ve been astounded by the kind-spirited and thoughtful feedback I received. I’ve been teaching large, impersonal classes for too long, and I forgot what it felt like to have a truly reciprocal relationship with my students. The only other critique I consistently received had to do with speed, and as I said last week, that’s to be expected. And so I close with a note to any of my student’s who’ve stumbled upon this blog: I’m trying, I really am – bear with me, and eventually I’ll get there.


One thought on “Dealing with Student Feedback

  1. Sounds like a great experience with a group of students who really want to learn. They are lucky to have such an engaged and active teacher!

    I agree with everything you say about where to compromise and where to stand firm. Regarding PowerPoint slides: I came to rely on them as my teaching notes, so in fact put a bit more on them than headings. I think that basic definitions are appropriate, as are key words. If you restrict most content to key words it both spurs your memory on what to talk about, but also leaves it to the student to determine how to describe these concepts in their own notes.

    I look forward to reading how your term progresses!

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