“Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.” – Andy Stanley
Recently, I came across a Chronicle of Higher Education article arguing against the use of student feedback in faculty evaluations. The author, a faculty member with decades of experience, presented a fierce case: students will assume that they have power over the instructors; faculty will inflate grades purposely to influence ratings; and standards will drop as a result, causing learning to suffer. The author cited a faculty survey that demonstrated how much more difficult it is to teach students today than at any point in the past. Finishing with panache, the author expressed heartfelt gratitude “that most students have too much decency and integrity to take revenge for a bad grade by submitting a damning evaluation.”
Arguments against multi-source feedback are nothing new, and the ones presented in the article had a similar tone and tenor to those offered in most objections. Being humbled by laudatory comments is an entirely different experience than being humbled by criticism, constructive or otherwise. It’s human nature to avoid uncomfortable situations and there isn’t a situation that’s quite as uncomfortable as facing criticism.
When the U.S. Army launched the Multi-Source Assessment and Feedback (MSAF) program in 2008, it promised a revolution in leader development. A decade later – unable to overcome flawed implementation (users could choose who rated them), generally poor participation, and broad institutional resistance – the program was cancelled. The promise never quite met expectations. While I’d participated in the MSAF program, I found the process wanting: for most participants, the program was largely run on an honor system and the feedback was generally mundane. It also didn’t really have any impact on my evaluation; the feedback was principally meant for me, sort of a “one to grow one” prospect.
Therefore, when I joined the faculty of a major university, I was intrigued – and skeptical – of the application of multi-source feedback in my evaluation. The reality was a wakeup call. Not only was the feedback a tool for students to critique my teaching, that same feedback would be reviewed by my rater and could impact my evaluation. The thought that students had a voice in my future was a little disconcerting at first. But I could also see benefits to it, and the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. The real question, the one that I personally believe haunted the MSAF: Can I set aside my ego long enough to grow from the experience?
I’m not that much different from anyone else. We don’t particularly like to be told that we’re wrong, reminded of our weaknesses, or face down the occasional personal insult. But we do; it’s all part of life. And, it seemed, it was going to be a regular part of my job, too.
I’ll confess that initially, it was a little nerve wracking. The first time you open a document that consolidates the feedback from 60 people is not inconsequential, especially knowing that same feedback is being provided to the person who writes your evaluation. You gravitate toward comments that stroke your ego while dreading those that pull the rug out from under your feet. But, if you’re serious about being the best you can be, you learn to accept that feedback and grow from it. It’s not always easy and it’s not always pleasant. It is, however, necessary.
Over time, I grew accustomed to the experience. I learned to help students structure their feedback in ways that helped me to improve my teaching as well as their classroom experience. I discovered what worked and what didn’t work. I found that some classes worked better with a textbook while others thrived on Socratic discussion. Along the way, I learned that the fears expressed in the article cited at the beginning of this post were largely unfounded.
In short, I grew to appreciate the feedback; I looked forward to receiving it. It’s not always positive, and at least one student in each course will offer patently negative feedback (typically the person who receives the lowest grade). While I do find humor in occasionally being compared to a barnyard animal, the remaining feedback is invaluable to me. We all have room to improve, and that feedback is an essential lens through which to see ourselves. And, frankly, if you’re afraid to see yourself as others do, you’re probably not well suited to stand in front of a classroom… or a formation of troops.