Backchanneling in the classroom

One of the pieces of feedback that I received more than once from my end-of-year survey is that some students felt like it was difficult to let me know when they were having problems in class. This was surprising to me, because I’d like to think that I’m available for discussion, encouraging in my openness, willing to listen to concerns, and generally the most approachable teacher I can be. Still, it was a repeated comment, so I’m considering ways to address it for next year.

I’ve been thinking about creating a “backchannel” for my classroom. If you’re not familiar with the notion, backchanneling is a common mode of sidebar communication, particularly in digital spaces. Perhaps the most obvious backchannel at work in the modern world is Twitter. While Twitter can certainly also serve as a forechannel (typically seen in the various #chats that take place on it every day), the tool is equally useful for folks who want to have backchannel conversations about conversations.

Twitter won’t work for what I’m looking to do, mainly because there is no way to tweet anonymously. If a student is not comfortable telling me about problems in person, they’re not going to be any more comfortable telling me via their Twitter account (or their email, or any other place where the communication is signed). For my class backchannel, I need a solution that provides students the ability to send me anonymous feedback.

The class survey is great for this, but it happens at the end of the year. My father suggested administering the class survey at multiple time points during the year, but I think that turns the survey into something more arduous than I want. My backchannel needs to be quick, and easy for my students to use. After a bit of consideration, I’ve settled on a solution that I think will work very well. I’m calling it the “Suggestion Box”.

Here’s how the “suggestion box” works:

  1. The suggestion box is not a physical thing, it’s a google form. I’m not going to manage a physical suggestion box. That’s just stupid and wasteful.
  2. The form is available to anyone with the link. This takes care of my anonymity requirement.
  3. The form is very brief. I ask students to include their class, describe their problem, and explain what they think would be the best solution.
  4. The form encourages a certain type of communication. I’ve included a bit of language at the top of the form describing the difference between constructive criticism and trolling. The submission confirmation dialogue also encourages students to reconsider letting me know about their problem directly, or at least telling their parents about the problem.
  5. The form notifies me when submissions are made. I’ve used the notification settings on the spreadsheet to email me whenever a submission is made.

That’s it. As simple a solution as I could think of. I’ve given the Suggestion Box a prominent place in my larger contact options on my various web properties, and I’ve explicitly added it to my course syllabi. The plan for next year is to remind students that the Box exists with some regularity. Hopefully, by implementing a backchannel, I won’t see the same sort of approachability issues crop up on next year’s end-of-year surveys.