56

I'm looking for some guidance from some senior/experienced academics situated in the teaching space.

As a relatively new lecturer (though I have some experience in lecturing in the past) I'm always looking for ways to improve my teaching. After doing a bit of research around how different lecturers etc approach student feedback, a number had stated that using anonymous feedback solicited during the semester can be really helpful.

So following on from that, I put on my learning site an anonymous feedback form for students that could let me know how they think the unit is going and what could be improved. The idea behind this was to get real-time feedback that could be implemented throughout the course, instead of for the following year.

I left this open since week 1, and perhaps that was my mistake. Despite barely being into week 2 (in which week 1 was just a basic introductory lecture to the course) one student has provided some anonymous feedback, which isn't feedback at all. Rather, it is just a string of abusive, sexist and foul language comments.

Due the alarming nature of the feedback, I approached a mentor/supervisor about what I should do. They were conflicted, because on the one hand, the nature of the comments were highly inappropriate, abusive, and raise concerns about the safety of my person in my teaching space. However, no specific threat at this time was made. On the other, having anonymous informal feedback throughout the unit is a good way of getting students to reflect on their own learning experiences without the fear of being reprimanded re assessments, and help me improve my teaching in the process.

I'm caught between continuing to allow anonymous informal feedback, or taking this option away and informing students of the reason. No other student has provided any feedback. Only myself and my teaching assistant have access to the feedback. Only students enrolled in the unit have access to the form.

Experienced lecturers/professors, how would you handle this situation?

This response here has been somewhat useful for future tips:

What is the best way to solicit teaching feedback from students (before the class is over)?

  • 19
    Is the feedback only send to you (and thus invisible to other students) or visible to all? – damian Aug 4 '15 at 11:41
  • 11
    Can anyone access the feedback site, or just your students? Is it possible the feedback is not from a student in the class? – Mad Jack Aug 4 '15 at 13:03
  • 26
    Were the comments actually threatening ("I'm going to ***** stab you!", "someone should stab you!") or were they simply abusive ("Your teaching is bad and you should ******* feel bad!!!", "Your class is the ******* worst you ******* ***** ")? – Murphy Aug 4 '15 at 13:25
  • 27
    Plenty of assholes in the world. Looks like you met one. Ignore it and move on. – CaptainCodeman Aug 4 '15 at 17:16
  • 6
    How specifically do the comments "raise concerns about the safety of my person in my teaching space"? Can you be more specific here? Was there a specific threat made? It will be hard to answer the question without more detail about this particular aspect of the feedback that was provided. – D.W. Aug 4 '15 at 20:43
42

It sounds like you've encountered the well-known downside of online disinhibition effect, more colloquially known as GIFT. There is simply nothing that can be done to prevent some people from being horrible when offered anonymity.

So, let's parse out two different questions about how you should react: 1) what actions should you take to protect yourself and other students? and 2) should you continue to use the anonymous feedback form?

Let's start with the first question: given that you know there is a horrible person in your class, what should you do to protect yourself and other students? I see three basic possibilities here, either a) the person is insincere in their statements and is trolling you to try to get a reaction, or b) the person is genuine but not a threat, or c) the person is an actual threat to the safety of yourself or others. If you are concerned that it might possibility c), then if there is any way for your IT staff to penetrate the anonymity and investigate, it's reasonable to ask them to do so, just as if somebody had made a serious electronic threat through some other channel (your institutions likely will have a process for reporting serious threats of harm, though, which may mean you shouldn't start by going directly to IT). Otherwise, it's probably best to ignore it and move on, because otherwise you're just giving them the reaction and power over your actions that they are looking for.

Now, turning to the second: should you continue to use the anonymous feedback form? The one problem with true anonymity is that if you get more nasty comments, you can't tell whether they came from the same person or not. I would recommend looking into whether you can get pseudonymous information from your system, i.e., so that Student X's comments are all collected together and Student Y's comments are all collected together separately. That way, you can separate out and discard feedback from the horrible person (essentially marking them with a "troll" filter), while still getting meaningful feedback from other students who have more positive disinhibition from the anonymity.

It's a pity that some people are horrible and try to screw things up for everybody else; the rest of us need to try to figure out how to appropriately protect ourselves and our institutions while keeping them from profiting from this behavior.

  • 4
    There are a whole lot of whingers out there. The advice given "it's probably best to ignore it and move on" has worked for me. I just filter it out, and concentrate on any good ideas that can help me do my job better - they do crop up from time to time. – ALAN WARD Aug 4 '15 at 12:41
  • 51
    "then if there is any way for your IT staff to penetrate the anonymity and investigate, it's reasonable to ask them to do so, just as if somebody had made a serious electronic threat through some other channel" As an IT professional, I can tell you it is not reasonable for OP to make this request at all. The request should be made through your institution's security office and accompanied by a formal complaint: this is either a threat, or it's not. Being hurt and offended is no reason to ask someone from a position of power to violate policy or possibly the law. – Clinton Pierce Aug 4 '15 at 15:17
  • 7
    @ClintonPierce Your point is well taken that in many institutions there may be a process that means you shouldn't talk directly to the IT staff, and I will modify the answer accordingly. My key point is that a genuine threat of harm in an anonymous feedback form should be treated just like any other genuine threat. – jakebeal Aug 4 '15 at 15:31
  • @ALANWARD agreed. :) – postagepaid Aug 4 '15 at 21:10
  • 2
    @ClintonPierce I agree. There was no specific threat so I wouldn't get IT involved since it breaches the anonymity aspect. Had there been a specific threat (i.e. I will come to your house to do X etc) that's when I'd get IT involved. – postagepaid Aug 4 '15 at 21:12
38

You must die! You're so cool! These are, at the two ends of the spectrum, example comments that I have received from students along the years.

You will find students who love you, those who like you, those for whom you are indifferent, those who dislike you, and those who plainly hate you. This regardless of what you do as a teacher, that is, even from week one of the class.

Those who love you will deliver overly enthusiastic comments; those who hate you, protected by the anonimity, will insult you in the worst possible ways and will wish you all sort of bad things.

My advice is: don't be too pleased by the former, and don't get sinked by the latter. In particular, for what concerns the abusive comments, unless they hide a real threat, brush them off and move on.

  • 2
    Agreed. I'm not sure if it's just a disgruntled student who doesn't like the approach of the unit or what the issue is, but I think this is the best way forward as others have said. – postagepaid Aug 4 '15 at 21:13
  • The only solution is to stop anonymous feedback comments. One can have anonymous polls for specific questions. But comments should not be allowed. This is simply mean. – Dilworth Sep 3 at 23:57
11

A short answer, but I believe that it answers your question:

Threats of violence correlate with, but don't cause, violence. As such, eliminating the medium that enabled that student to anonymously communicate threats of violence, as you have proposed to do, does not reduce the probability that one of them will act violently. However, it does ensure that no student can anonymously communicate useful insights about the course to you.

  • 1
    THAT. Someone won't change their ideas, thoughts, or intentions merely because they no longer can rant via anonymous form. Conversely, there may be a (probably, small) chance that an option to ran anonymously would cause someone with a grief to be less of a threat (since they didn't bottle up their negative feelings; and feel a sense of "accomplishment" over having expressed themselves). – DVK Aug 6 '15 at 2:54
8

I wanted to chime in with a few other possible routes for getting student feedback throughout the semester in a way that may reduce unproductive/abusive comments.

If you have a teaching center at your institution, take advantage of their resources. I have been at a number of institutions where you can arrange for a member of the teaching resource center to come observe one of your classes. They will then have you leave the class about 15 minutes early to obtain feedback from your students; they will present to you later a summary of useful recommendations based both on their observations and their conversation with your students. This is an excellent way to get feedback during the semester about your teaching.

I have also found that it is useful to get anonymous feedback from my students during the semester but to do so in a more structured fashion. In other words, every 2 or 3 weeks, present them with several targeted questions (so, for example, about the balance of lecture versus discussion, or the content or length of problem sets, etc.).

After each round of feedback, spend a short period at the beginning of class discussing the overall themes of the feedback with the class, and speak concretely to both 1) what you will do to address the comments and 2) what they need to do to contribute to a positive experience. I have found that making sure the students know that you are taking their comments seriously helps them to take providing feedback a bit more seriously.

  • We don't have a teaching centre but I will get a colleague to come in and provide a review. I think your second option might also be useful, but will be difficult to do with a class of over 100 with only 2 hours per week. When soliciting the feedback, did you just ask them these questions in the class? How did you approach this? Because I did do the anonymous option but this has instead left me open to a string of abuse and wasn't particularly helpful. – postagepaid Aug 4 '15 at 21:16
7

Assuming that no direct threats were made and that you do not personally feel threatened, I would attempt to show that this attempt to troll you and make you feel bad was unsuccessful and that you actually found it amusing. Don't show weakness to students who want to hurt you.

I would show the comments on a PowerPoint slide, at the start of a lecture, and say something like "Hey everyone, we've got an anonymous feedback form, let's see how that's going.' Then present the feedback (I'd leave the profanity, etc, in there, but you might want to 'beep' it out."

"Hmmm... We've clearly got some strong opinions. Indeed, it appears that I am a ******** ******** *******. That's kind of a broad description, which isn't so helpful. How about we try to make things more directly relevant, for example, you might write 'If the PowerPoint slides were different colors, then you would not be such a *********** ******** *******."

  • 1
    I quite like that approach. – postagepaid Aug 6 '15 at 0:22
4

Anonymous feedback is useful, but doesn't take the place of gaining enough trust from your students to get direct feedback. I've found the best way to get that trust is to tell them what's on your mind. If you're straight with people and let them know that you care, they'll usually let you know if they're unhappy.

I was teaching a beginners' programming class a number of years ago, and when midterm came around I got all sorts of negative feedback. Some was very helpful; practically everyone told me to stop telling them how much time they had left every half hour. (Sorry, I really did that.) They nearly all complained that the test was too difficult and they were worried about their grades. I told them I would grade it on a curve, but I also told them them that I didn't think that they were there to get a good grade so much as a job, and if they couldn't handle the material in the test I wouldn't be willing to hire them. Funny thing, they did a lot better in the final! :)

The point is that it's important to make it clear that students have a say in their education, and that if they have something that they want to say they will be listened to. That way, they will often listen to you as well. If you keep fast to your goal of seeing that they learn the material as well as possible, and keep in mind that liking you is secondary to that goal, then you'll probably find that most of the students like you anyway.

1

Anonymous, open-ended comments are one of the most effective forms of feedback as it regularly produces honest and useful information. Don't stop using it just because one or two individuals misuse it.

I know work is being done to automatically censor personal attacks in student feedback. If you're collecting responses to start/stop/continue-questions you should check out hubert.ai They have a solution that prevents foul comments to reach through.

-3

Since your ego is involved, I think you need to have someone in between you and the comment submitters to do some screening. One way would be to ask if someone in your department administration would like to be the one to be be checking the comments. Another way (but this is not an online method) would be to hand out feedback (paper) forms once a month or so in your class. If it looks sort of official, and if you take class time for this, I doubt people would write silly things.

  • 8
    "it needs to be carefully moderated" - No it doesn't. If the feedback is not displayed to anyone else (and is only shown to the instructors), there is no need for it to be moderated. I think your answer starts from a hidden premise. Many instructors provide channels for anonymous feedback that won't be shown to anyone other than the instructor, and in those cases, this answer will be inaccurate or unhelpful. – D.W. Aug 4 '15 at 20:46
  • 2
    Only I and my teaching assistant have access to the feedback, so there's no commenting etc. – postagepaid Aug 4 '15 at 21:17
  • Thank you for the clarification. I have edited my answer. – aparente001 Aug 6 '15 at 5:30
  • 1
    @aparente001: alas, you probably underestimate the willingness of certain people to write silly things. The examples I gave in my answer were written exactly in the kind of setting you are proposing: the feedback forms were officially prepared by the faculty and handed out in class (now we have online forms, instead). – Massimo Ortolano Aug 6 '15 at 6:14
  • @MassimoOrtolan - All the more reason to set up a go-between, so that you don't have to read the nonsense and abuse. Perhaps you could work with a buddy faculty member, and screen his or hers, while your buddy screens yours. (I'm suggesting this in response to what you said in your title, about "moving forward.") – aparente001 Aug 6 '15 at 12:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.