Do You Have an Open Door Policy?

If your answer is yes, think again.

No matter how approachable you think you are, there will be some students who don’t see it that way. You won’t know if they have complaints. You may be totally blindsided when they go to the dean to complain. More often than not, when this occurs, I learn that the student has not discussed the issue directly with his instructor. Why is this? There are several reasons:

  1. Fear of Retribution – Some students are convinced that their instructor will take it out on them in terms of their grade. The irony is that they are always complaining about their grade.
  2. Personality Conflict – If a student doesn’t like you, he is unlikely to approach you with a problem or criticism.
  3. Unassertiveness – Some students simply lack the intrapersonal communication skills to confront authority figures (yes, you are an authority figure) with problems or complaints.
  4. Failure to Take Responsibility for Their Learning – Some students prefer to attribute their instructor’s behavior to their academic shortcomings. This type of student is more prone to complaining than confronting the instructor and resolving the problem.
  5. Negative Assumptions – Some students assume their instructor does not care about them and their success.

Let me share a couple stories with you to illustrate my point. I will begin with the sensitive student who took offence at her instructor’s joke.

An experienced, tenured instructor in my division was known for his stories and jokes. One day he quipped in class that the only good cat is a dead cat. You could argue that one of his students overreacted, but all that is important that she was extremely upset. She fought back the tears and was shaking as she expressed her disdain for his comment. She was traumatized. There was no way she was going to confront her instructor directly. With this student’s permission, I discussed the issue with the instructor. “I wish she had talked to me about that,” he responded.

In another instance, a male student whom I guessed to be in his late 20’s articulated his problem with the way his instructor was teaching the course. I thanked the student for presenting his complaint in a respectful manor and encouraged him to talk to his instructor. I thought I had convinced him that this is the best approach, and I spent over an hour coaching him on how to approach his instructor. He said he would. However, roughly two weeks later I was talking to the instructor and learned the student had not. I asked the instructor if any of his students had come to him to discuss a particular type of issue. He said none had. Because the student requested anonymity, I never told the instructor who he was.

My Advice

Use a variety of techniques to get feedback from your students, and include a one-minute paper as one of them. “Google” this subject, and you will find all the information you need. In short, it works this way. At the end of class, have your students take out a blank sheet of paper and answer three questions:

  1. What is the most important thing you learned today?
  2. What didn’t you understand?
  3. What would you like to see changed?

Tell them not to sign their names. Allowing them anonymity gives you the best chance of receiving honest, open feedback. You should summarize their feedback at the start of the next class, and explain what you are going to do to address any issues. Many times, no changes on your part will be required or even appropriate. Other times, this type of feedback will prompt you to make changes and, in some instances, review material your students didn’t understand. This is a good way to identify problems early before your students run to the dean to complain.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted February 25, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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