26

We are towards the end of a graduate level course of about 20 students, and its time for course evaluation. The instructor is fairly new (just graduated from Ph.D a year ago) and is not a native English speaker. Overall the instructor is knowledgeable on the subject. However, the style of delivery is very monotonous and often sleep inducing. Instructor just reads off from slides, almost like a news reader, only with even less modulation. Sometimes the thick accent itself seems to require additional effort to listen more. However, comprehension has never been an issue. Also, instructor is in general a good person, very accommodating to missed lectures and wants students to succeed.

I am a bit conflicted if I should give an honest feedback about how the lectures were so monotonous, or just a cliche'd positive one. On the one hand, my reasoning is - if I do not give an honest feedback, the instructor would not realize to change the style of teaching. However on the other hand, I do not want to make a rather young and new faculty feel bad, since we can't say for sure how people react to negative feedback. I also think that the monotony is something other students also felt, so even if I don't give an honest feedback, someone else will. Some advice on what should be the right perspective would be helpful.

2
  • 8
    Please don’t write answers in comments. This question already has 13 real answers, please don't try to jump the queue by posting answers in comments. Further, answers in comments bypass our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes.
    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:49
  • 1
    To clarify: your title mentions “brutally” honest feedback. Is this something you want to convey? It can carry a certain connotation of maliciousness.
    – Eric
    Dec 9, 2022 at 23:32

14 Answers 14

42

Getting honest, but not malicious feedback is invaluble when you are just starting with teaching. Most feedback we receive is either of the bland, cliched, positive nature you describe, or "it was crap".

Being able to give honest constructive feedback in a way that does not offend the reciever is a difficult but incredibly valuble skill.

One way to start might be the "sh*t sandwich". Structure your feedback in the following way:

  1. Something you liked.
  2. Something you didn't like.
  3. One concrete suggestion for something the reciever should focus on for maximum improvement.
14
  • 10
    Hmmm. "Feedback sandwich". It is actually a Pedagogical Pattern. It can be (should be) used by instructors as well.
    – Buffy
    Dec 8, 2022 at 15:06
  • 13
    Oh. I've not heard that name before. The instructors on our teacher training course all refered to it by the less polite name. Dec 8, 2022 at 18:15
  • 22
    FWIW, feedback sandwich is a tempting concept that didn't stand the test of time. Instead, feedback that describes actions and their impact (like "when you read off the slide without looking up, I lose interest) is more effective. Dec 9, 2022 at 7:27
  • 22
    The point of the positive in the sandwich (and positive feedback in general) is not just to make the recipient feel better. It's to make sure that they don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. For people starting out it can be just as difficult to know what they're doing right as what they're doing wrong. Think of something they should hang on to in the course, to help them understand what to focus on. Dec 9, 2022 at 9:23
  • 6
    Another good reason to use the sandwich is to demonstrate some level of "hey, I'm on your side!" Many/most people naturally feel defensive when criticized, so leading with a compliment contextualizes the criticism as more constructive rather than an insult. Dec 9, 2022 at 21:34
27

Monotonically reading off slides is a poor presentation technique in any area - whether lecturing or presenting a research talk or reading the daily news on TV/radio.

You can give honest feedback without being brutal. I'd focus on things like the presentation style rather than the accent, as the latter is mostly an accident of where the instructor grew up (though they may also be inter-related - an instructor who feels uncomfortable lecturing in English might defer to reading text verbatim, regardless of their actual English proficiency). Generally, feedback is best when it's constructive: suggest what you'd like the instructor to do differently, rather than just what they did wrong, e.g.: "I think the lectures would be more engaging and easier to follow if the instructor spoke conversationally about the material rather than reading directly from the slides."

It's also appropriate to mix positive and negative feedback. Sometimes this is suggested as more of a "management tool" to convey areas for improvement without offending the target, but it's also appropriate when it's fully honest and natural - if you appreciated the instructor's flexibility or willingness to spend extra time to help students succeed, point those out too.

6
  • "Monotonically reading off slides is a poor presentation technique" Approach this with caution - maybe they have a speech-related disability. Dec 8, 2022 at 22:46
  • 8
    @AnonymousPhysicist: Could you elaborate? Indeed, the poor presentation technique of some people might be due to a disability. But what's the conclusion you are suggesting? Dec 9, 2022 at 0:47
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Most presentation software has a separate "Notes" view; this can be populated with a script, if needed.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 9, 2022 at 23:53
  • @wizzwizz4 Monotonically reading a script that is not on the slide is no better or worse for students. Dec 10, 2022 at 4:19
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Strongly disagree; slides with key points while someone reads a more detailed description would likely be a big upgrade. Not the ideal I'd aim for, but still an upgrade.
    – Bryan Krause
    Dec 10, 2022 at 4:25
13

You should give honest and constructive feedback. Try to avoid "brutality" in course feedback, and instead aim to report the shortcomings clearly, in a calm and measured fashion. Go through each of the problems you observed and report clearly what went wrong and how it detracted from your learning or participation in the course. If the course was very poor in quality, you could consider giving a shortened version that focuses on the top three problems, to avoid overloading the instructor with problems.

1
  • The OP also mentions positive points; don't neglect to mention those! Dec 9, 2022 at 20:01
7

You can be honest, but not cruel. So "brutally" is, perhaps a bit too strong.

Note, of course, that new instructors are often fairly poor at it, learning on the job as they are.

If you think the person has potential, even if not realized, be aware that it might not be best to say things that make their career harder. In a small group (20 students) it might be an option to speak with them rather than make the evaluation overly negative.

New instructors (myself IIRC, though it was long ago) can fail in many ways. I was overly pedantic and only learned (if slowly) that such things didn't work.

Also, as a grad student, don't get into the habit of depending overly on the quality of lectures. There are other ways to learn, including asking a lot of questions, work groups, exercises, outside readings, etc. If you were successful at learning, then the flaws of the instructor are less important than if they were an actual impediment. Painful, yes, I've seen that too.

2
  • 4
    "If you think the person has potential" I disagree. In a course evaluation, evaluate the course, not the person. Dec 8, 2022 at 22:47
  • @AnonymousPhysicist, actually the OP is asking about evaluating the instructor.
    – Buffy
    Dec 9, 2022 at 12:07
6

Do you like to hear "brutally honest" feedback on stuff you didn't do well? Or at least ready to? If so, you are entitled to do so.

I do not know you, of course, but my experience is that people that are quite generous with brutally honest criticism are not quite so gracious in accepting similarly brutally honest criticism. Maybe that's not true for you, I do not know.

But in general, criticism works best if it shows improvement opportunities in the process and action, and it's clearly not referring to the person. If the person comes from non-western cultures, one needs additionally some cultural sensitivity to convey the message in a way that will help improve things without causing the person to either shut down or be significantly hurt in their self-esteem.

7
  • 3
    I like the third paragraph, but the first two paragraphs avoid the question in a misleading way. Being entitled to do something doesn't imply that it's a good idea to do it. In the case of harshness of feedback, it's might be preferable to adjust the feedback to the receiver, rather than to assume that they're OK with receiving the same level of harshness that one is OK with oneself. Dec 9, 2022 at 13:36
  • Frankly, I do not think this is a good approach. I am naturally inclined to bash both others' work and my own, and I know full well it is just not helpful. If I did not do something well, I am usually very much aware of that fact, in likeliness have endured a long internal struggle greenlighting the project, and am very willing to accept I should not have done so (although it will probably be bad for me, rationally). Again, rationally, I understand the merit of releasing something imperfect, but it is still a struggle, every time. And criticizing others the same way does not help them, either.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:42
  • @lighthousekeeper Your are perfectly on point, of course. My first paragraphs are a bit polemic. However, OP chose to write "brutally honest" and my initial paragraphs basically meta-reflected to some extent the style of the comments they would consider to give. Dec 10, 2022 at 4:12
  • @Lodinn See my response to Lighthouse Keeper. You are right that, taken literally, this may not be the best thing to do - but OP need to realize themselves what "brutally honest" means. Frankly, I never believed in "bashing" as an effective strategy to improve, neither others, nor oneself. Some people seem to think it works or it's simply an obsessive behaviour that they cannot unlearn. I am not talking about the second type, in but the first type of behaviour they need to be confronted with what effect it has on the receiving side. Dec 10, 2022 at 4:22
  • Even if the instructor is from somewhere considered non-western (OP only mentions accent—it could just as well be an American student and, say, a Scottish prof), they've surely received enough feedback (i.e. at the very least while completing a PhD) from "westerners" to have a sense of how they tend to give feedback. By which I mean it's not so much "cultural sensitivity" that's required in this instance, but simply compassion and collegiality. Also, feeling hurt by careless or cruel criticism isn't a function of western vs. non-western cultural background—it's a fairly universal response, no?
    – cpit
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:10
5

Instead of a generic unactionable criticism such as:

These lectures were so monotonous that they encouraged me to write a will, just in case one of them bored me to death.

One might give concrete ideas for improvement:

To make the lectures more engaging for students, it might be good to have:

  • Interactivity, e.g. frequent short questions/quizzes that the student first tries, and then the teacher demonstrates the correct method.
  • Frequent "breaks" with discussions, real-world examples, videos, ...
  • A lively tone of voice, with clear diction and separation between words. (Might help with the accent.)
  • Other relevant strategies.
2

I agree with the answers that all (at the moment) say yes to honest but not brutal feedback. You could almost copy you question here to the feedback form, complete with your hesitation.

3
  • I was thinking this myself when I first saw the question yesterday (this was before any answers were given), and at that time I thought about saying in a comment something similar to what you've said. FYI, I didn't downvote (2 as I write this), and I don't have any strong ideas as to why you got them, but I suspect if you said this in a comment then someone would say your comment should be an answer! Dec 9, 2022 at 13:04
  • Indeed, nothing wrong with a good short answer. Some may have downvoted because of the first sentence (if you agree with existing answers, just upvote them). But I thought the second sentence was valuable, so +1 from me.
    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:57
  • @DaveLRenfro I debated comment vs answer when I posted. Dec 9, 2022 at 18:08
2

I think feedback should be honest but respectful and courteous. You should offer points to improve, but there is no need to be a jerk about it.

It's the worst thing when you have an awful lecturer who has been teaching for twenty years and never improved because no-one gave them honest feedback. If they need to improve, then you have to tell them, as they won't do it otherwise.

Also, don't just assume that other students will give the feedback which is on your mind, as it may be that they are thinking the same.

1

Constructive criticism is often very much appreciated. Give feedback based on the presentation of work and make the person understand that what you are addressing is their style of delivery and not the person directly or their personality.

You often get people who say things like, "After you pointed out my robotic/monotonous voice, I have significantly improved my mode of teaching." Try to give honest feedback at all times but use words wisely to differentiate between the person and their delivery of work.

1

First, students' course evaluations are notoriously biased. Faculty who do not look like white men consistently receive worse evaluations from students due to bias.

The age and experience level of the instructor should not be part of your evaluation.

Be honest, but keep it constructive. Do mention the instructor just reads off the slides. That is something the instructor can change (though, depending on circumstances, perhaps not easily).

The typical instructor is not going to be able to learn a new accent (assuming this is not an acting class). Mention the instructor's accent only with great caution. If they have an accent with a low social status, this can bias student evaluations. For example, if they speak Black Vernacular English or Appalachian English, that might be causing bias. Some students might find faculty with a low-status accent to be excellent role models.

Where possible, evaluate the course, not the person teaching it.

2
  • 2
    There is a separate section for feedback or comments on the Instructor, as part of the course eval. Hence the question.
    – Neb Uzer
    Dec 9, 2022 at 0:02
  • 2
    This is a crucially important consideration in the context of this question. There's substantial empirical evidence that instructors with accents, especially when they don't look like white men, receive worse student evaluations. In aggregate this has an exclusionary effect that not only materially harms the instructors but also ultimately reduces the overall quality of education. Mentioning the instructor's accent is irrelevant and inappropriate (you likely wouldn't say someone with a high-pitched voice made it harder to pay attention, for example).
    – cpit
    Dec 11, 2022 at 9:58
0

I agree with your own caution on being too martially critical as this will make the professor personally defensive and thus reluctant to change.

While - in theory - suggesting that the professor observe (presumably exemplary) Professors Mandy and Jim in the same department might work for some staff, it is more likely to backfire as the external behavior view is so different to the internal motivation feeling. And there is also the matter of professional pride: nobody wants to be anyone else's clone.

From your information, I think the main problem is the monotone and how it affects the allocation of attention-focus by students - who are likely writing notes concurrently: the professor is not changing his tone to match the importance of the immediate point.

I think the solution to this might involve something like what is used in "labs" for foreign language learning, e.g. something that plays a dialogue on some ordinary scenario between native speakers that the learner may listen to, repeat, hear his own recording and repeat till he adjudges his pronunciations adequate. Of course, here the topic is not an encounter between a travelling salesman and a train conductor: it's about an advanced field of study. And likely no examples exist for that field. However some public lectures, e.g. Royal Society Lectures or Open University course lectures (see YouTube or the OU website), exist where the speakers have been given a reasonable amount of on-camera training.

But before the latter could be of benefit, the categorization and hence objectivization (i.e. de-personalization) of this problem needs to be done and it is best that some members of your class approach your university's Teaching Support Unit (or whatever it's called over there) and bring the professionals there onboard with you. If their terminology for this issue is for example "tone modulation", then refer to this term in your critique to the professor.

But the good thing in all this is that the professor's own goodwill to want to teach you his subject and guide you in your researches. So many bad teaching staff simply do not have this - and this apathy is palpable and itself sows apathy in the souls of students.

I think this guy will come through if supported by colleagues and the university's teaching support bureau.

0

I depends what this implies.

In countries where the impact is zero (most European universities for instance), when there is a feedback system it is either

  • to make the school more modern and whatnot, and it goes to the bin
  • to create some statistics for advertisement
  • an idea of the instructor themselves to get useful feedback

I was in the latter case, I wanted students to tell me what they liked and what they did not. Some of the feedback was not useful (either a nice gesture via a "great!" or a less nice one via "it was crap"), some were expected but not useable ("the curriculum is too complicated", "the math is too complicated" → these I would take to the dean as inputs for possible (though unlikely) general changes), and finally, some was pure gold (what they found was good because..., what they found was bad because...).

I always encouraged the students to be frank and make the because... part as detailed as possible. It was anonymous, but someone could put their name if they were fine with following up (which happened a few times and was great).

In countries where there is impact (my understanding is that the career of teachers in at least to some point the US is dependent on this feedback), you need to use your ethics.

If you think that the teacher was competent, you may want to give good "grades", but highlight in the "comments" section that their writing was not very understandable, or that the course would gain with more excitement from their part or whatever.

If the teacher is bad (which is subjective, but some are really bad) then you have a chance to influence how others will be educated.

0

Even if honesty is always good in the face of a well-meaning, non-prejudiced person that knows and has the confidence to know that you mean well and are not prejudiced too…
You don’t have to worry about honesty. It’s not about honesty. It’s about usefulness.

Clearly, the current situation is harmful to you, and the instructor causes that, probably both without intention or being aware of it. It may be the deciding factor to the avalanche that decides your future, after all.
So how about you not getting hurt either?

You can ask yourself: What is the most useful? To the instructor. To you.
Both directly, in terms of plain information given, as well as in terms of what the person can actually accept.

For example: A suggestion may be very useful. And a mental trigger or other mental problem does not change that, nor give anyone the right to blame you for their problems… But a trigger will prevent the person from accepting otherwise good information, and you cannot quickly fix that with InstaTherapy™. So, as you hinted at, you still want to communicate it in a way that can be accepted even with that. Because your goal is to actually get it across.
But actually, it’s really not your job, but theirs. (The instructor is paid too, no? So where’s your money’s worth?) But that is of no use to help you right there, right then. You need to actually get it across!

I don’t know how the culture in your country is, but I know about the stark difference in this, between my country, Germany, and e.g. the USA, and what effects it has. …
Here in Germany, frankness is the standard modus operandi by everyone, and you either grow some confidence and stability (what we consider growing up) or die trying. But what looks offensive to US-Americans is only superficial, as we are well-meaning, usually want things to be better, and don’t even think about putting somebody down (unless we are clearly angry). …
By contrast, in the US, everyone is always nice, which is of course nice, and everything is wrapped is soft cushions and cotton candy. But in my experience, this is often only superficial, and behind the scenes it might be “basically war”, and criticism is very often seen as purposefully hurtful, so everyone either becomes very careful in how they express themselves, or dies trying. (In its most extreme case, it enables modern people to bully by becoming “offended”.)
US-Americans probably find our culture as bewildering as we find theirs.
So of course, the approach depends on the culture of who you’re dealing with, and cannot be answered fully in general for a specific person. (In short: Empathy, for them as well as you, and getting to know the person as well as you makes things easy.)

In the end, I wouldn’t shy away from giving any criticism that will improve things, but ALSO rather focus on expressing it in the right way. No Either-Or. but an And!
That way you get the best of both worlds. It takes empathy and brain power of course. But you literally are currently doing exercises for your brain power, so… :)

0

What do you want to achieve? Do you want to let the instructor know that his/her accent makes it hard to follow the class? Do you want him to improve? Ask yourself what is your goal and then what kind feedback helps you arrive at this goal. If your goal had been to make it easier to follow the class, why didn't you bring up your issues already during the semester? Critique for the sake of critique is a waste of everyone's time..

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .