More course feedback from students: The power of incentives

Feedback from students is crucial for developing our teaching. It provides us with insights into our teaching methods, course content, and other aspects of the learning experience that we might otherwise miss. It's the bridge that allows us to understand our students better and adapt our teaching accordingly. However, more often than not, eliciting this feedback is a challenge. The typical response rate is often low, leading to a skewed and incomplete picture.
Three smiley faces drawn in a blackboard: one smiling, one with neutral expression, and one with sad face.

In the corridors of our department, we have a practice of displaying some of our achievements on our office doors - often the first pages of published research articles, recent accolades, or other tokens of recognition. These visible reminders serve not just as personal milestones but as inspiration to colleagues and students alike.

This autumn, instead of showcasing my latest article, I pinned up a printout detailing the feedback statistics from my bachelor-level course. Now, you might wonder, why would anyone exhibit course feedback? Isn’t it a matter between the teacher and the students? But this wasn't about vanity. It wasn't about showing positive comments or high ratings. It was about sharing a method that had brought about a remarkable increase in feedback submission from my students. A method I believe can change the way we look at course feedback.

Realizing that most of us responds well to incentives, I offered my students a deal: if more than 60% of them submitted feedback by a certain date, everyone would earn an extra point on the final exam, which was out of 32 points. It might sound trivial, but this small incentive proved transformative. The response rate surged to 67%, resulting in a whopping 137 feedback submissions. Moreover, 44 of these submissions contained voluntary written feedback, providing valuable qualitative insights to refine the course structure and content.

As a qualitative researcher, I understand that the number of responses may not be the full story. However, the sheer volume of feedback this time around has not only provided me with broader perspectives but has also empowered me to make evidence-backed decisions to develop the course.

The experiment confirmed the age-old truth: well-aligned incentives drive behaviour. And in this case, the incentive didn't need to be monumental. Just one point on the final exam was enough to drive engagement. It's fascinating how such a small nudge can change the dynamics of feedback submission.

To my fellow educators reading this, consider what kinds of incentives could you introduce in your course to motivate students to provide feedback? It doesn't have to be extra exam points, but something that enriches the student's learning experience and integrates feedback as an integral part of the course. And indeed, we don't necessarily need to wait for changes in feedback software or GDPR regulations to make a difference.

Additionally, the next time you devise a good practice in your teaching, consider pinning it beside your latest research visible for your colleagues to see. Both pedagogical developments and research contributions are important in academia. Let's share and learn from both dimensions, pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve.

A blond man standing by his green office door, pointing to student feedback taped on the door.


Timo Pohjosenperä is Postdoctoral Researcher in Oulu Business School´s Department of Marketing, Management and International Business. He teaches course Jakelukanavat ja kaupan ketjuliiketoiminta (Distribution and retail management) for bachelor students and in open university. Recent research topics include sustainable supply chain management, value co-creation, circular economy and health care logistics.

P.S. To the students reading this, yes, I remain dedicated to inviting outstanding guest speakers, clarifying group work instructions, and, by popular demand, continuing to play the song requests at the start of lectures.

Main picture: Adrian / Pixabay