Responding to Student Feedback: An Opportunity to Make Our Teaching Visible

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Here at Rice we are getting close to the mid-semester mark. This means that the CTE staff is busy conducting in-class feedback sessions whereby we are invited by faculty into their classrooms to talk with students about how the course is going. Mid-semester feedback sessions, accompanied by a consultation, are among the most popular services that we offer at the CTE [1].  And, for good reason. The value of collecting feedback from students is well documented to positively effect learning outcomes at the end of the semester, especially when accompanied by a consultation. However, the most important part of collecting student feedback is responding to that feedback. In this post I am going to offer a few suggestions that faculty have found particularly helpful when responding to mid-semester feedback.

(1) First and foremost, you must respond to the feedback you collected. After reviewing the feedback, start the next class by opening a conversation about what they said and how you plan to address it or not (more on that later). It helps to plan your mid-semester feedback session into your course design so that you have set aside class time for discussion of the feedback with students. Ten to twenty minutes should provide sufficient time for discussion. Make the discussion about how you and the students can create a course that best supports their learning. Remind students that this is a joint effort and good communication is central to the teacher-student relationship. Often you will find students are asking for you to do more of something or to modify something you already do. This provides an opportunity to reinforce for students (and yourself) the strengths of the course and how you plan to build on those strengths. For example let’s say that students ask for more time for taking exams and you are able to provide more time. You can start the conversation by saying that you are happy to see that both you and the students have high expectations for their learning, and you hear them saying that more time on the exams will enable them to better demonstrate what they have learned. Framing a change to the course in this way shows that you are focused on their learning and you expect them to be focused on their learning too.

(2) Whether you are discussing feedback or collecting it, focus on student learning. When I conduct these feedback sessions I begin by starting a conversation with the students about their learning in the class. I am always struck by how productive my discussions are with students and how eager they are to discuss their learning in the context of the course. Generally I open the conversation with the following question: In this course, what has been the most helpful and supportive of your learning? And I follow with: what has been the least helpful and supportive of your learning? Asking students about learning steers students away from thinking about 'likes' and 'dislikes, which could have nothing to do with their learning, and instead encourages them to focus on the aspects of the course that do contribute to their learning. I ask them to explain and defend their statements giving me with a richer understanding of exactly how specific teaching strategies or aspects of course design are contributing to or detracting from learning.

(3) You don’t have to change anything. Just because students don’t think something contributes to their learning does not necessarily mean that what you are doing is not working. Here is where the rich, descriptive feedback you gather from a conversation with students can shed light on whether students understand the goal of an assignment, activity, or exam and if they are approaching it correctly. Therefore, while you don’t have to change anything about your course, you should make your teaching visible. In my consultations with faculty I remind them that they are under no obligation to change their course, but they do need to explain to students why they won’t be.  Students often don’t understand the amount of work, planning, preparation, sweat, and tears that go into designing a course. In fact, it is often a mystery to them why their professors assign specific readings, require research papers, have class discussion, and/or design exams the way they do. Discussing learning goals and the associated assignments, activities, and content associated with those goals at the beginning of the semester and throughout are a great way to make teaching visible to students. Discussing what you will and will not change based on the mid-semester feedback is another way. If you don’t plan to change something you better have a good reason why (in terms of student learning) and you need to let the students know. For example, in my sociology courses I always assign one book-length sociological study. In the past students would tell me that they thought it was too much reading. I took a long hard look at why assigning the whole book was important to me and it reaffirmed one of my key learning goals: to understand the process of sociological research from beginning to end. Reading the whole book, as opposed to a few chapters, is critical to that learning goal. Now I let the students know early in the term why reading the entirety of a sociological study is critical to their learning. Students may not like it, but they appreciate it and can now connect that aspect of course design to their learning.

(4) When discussing the mid-semester feedback with students focus on connecting the course design to students own understanding of their learning. This is a perfect opportunity to promote metacognition among your students by asking them to reflect on and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses as learners. A good conversation about what is and is not working well for students in a course will help students to better understand their own learning. In addition, hearing from other students about different ways of learning in the course can help students approach the course in new ways. For example, I recently had a group of students in a large lecture class tell me that they really appreciated the quizzes the professor assigned because they “forced” them to practice the problem-sets frequently. I told them that the research on learning supported their experience and that there is even a name for it: long-term potentiation or frequent practice over time. I also took the opportunity to tell them that the research demonstrated that the opposite – cramming for exams – did not lead to long-term learning. Having this conversation in front of the whole class not only reinforced effective study strategies in the course, but provided the opportunity for students to see one of the ways the course was designed to maximize their learning.

(5) It is important to contextualize the feedback. Each term you teach brings a different set of students to your course (and you may even be teaching at a different institution). What worked well with one set of students in the past may not being working well with others. While there are general learning principles that provide the foundation for learning, you also want to consider how different approaches to course design may work better for different students, different courses, and even classes at different times of day [2]. I have completed mid-semester evaluations in different sections of the same course, with the same professor, during the same semester, and at the same institution that produced very different feedback. The difference for one course was the time of day the two sections met. One section met in the early morning and one in the afternoon. Not surprisingly the students in the morning class needed a lot more active learning strategies to keep them engaged and on task. I have also seen significant differences in the multiple sections of the same course when one section had mostly freshman enrolled and the other mostly enrolled students in their third or fourth year.

If nothing else mid-semester evaluations will help you get to know your class better. By collecting feedback in the middle of the semester you can build on the strengths of the course and make any needed adjustments to provide the best context for your students to learn going forward.  In addition, discussing student feedback with them gives them the opportunity to see you, themselves, and the class in a new way.

[1] At the CTE all of our services are voluntary and confidential.

[2] L. Dee Fink provides an extensive guide to thinking about how “situational factors” can and should affect course design.

 

Posted on October 11, 2017 .

Teaching after Hurricane Harvey

As Rice prepares for classes to resume tomorrow, the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Office of Student Wellbeing have collaborated to produce the following guide to working with students in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Posted on September 4, 2017 .

A New Taxonomy of Learning Goals

Helping faculty think through what they value in the context of their courses is my favorite part of course design. But I have to confess that the traditional taxonomies I use when doing so have never made much conceptual sense to me. So after many years of introducing these categories with the caveat that we shouldn't think too hard about them, I finally decided to create my own. I didn't think the world needed yet another taxonomy of learning goals, but I thought I would do a better job talking with faculty if I could present the alternatives in my own vernacular. And it turns out they liked it enough to insist that I share.

Posted on May 15, 2017 .

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This week members of the Rice University faculty are invited to join in a campus-wide celebration of teaching during the 2nd annual Faculty Owl Days.  To start off the week we are introducing a new year-round initiative here at the CTE to celebrate the excellent teaching that takes place at Rice - the Teaching Studio. The Teaching Studio is a virtual space in which faculty can share their experiments, lessons learned, as well as tried and true practices with course design and pedagogical strategies.  

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Here at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence we believe that it is important to recognize great teachers, support them in their growth, and learn from their experiences. One of the many ways we do this is through Rice’s internal teaching awards as well as nominations for teaching awards at the state and national level. In our efforts to support the nomination of Rice faculty for external teaching awards we have put together a comprehensive list of external teaching awards for faculty four-year institutions.

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"How much should I assign?" is one of the most basic questions teachers ask when designing and revising their courses. Yet it is also one of the most difficult to answer. To help instructors better calibrate their expectations, we've created a course workload estimator that incorporates the most important insights from the literature on how students learn.

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Error climate has emerged as an important consideration for teachers in college classrooms.  Read more about this new research and take the Error Climate Inventory for College Instructors to assess the error climate of your courses.

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Addressing a "Threat in the Air": How Stereotypes Affect Our Students and What We Can Do About It

It has been well documented that the threat of possibly satisfying or confirming a stereotype can interfere with an individual’s performance on a variety of tasks, including but not limited to academic performance. Yet the research also demonstrates that targeted classroom interventions such as providing students with sense of belonging to a broader community, highlighting positive role models in a field or discipline, and asking to students affirm what they value about themselves have been shown to help eliminate the effects of stereotype threat.

Posted on June 6, 2016 .

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Posted on March 9, 2016 .

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In December of 2014, I stumbled upon an article by Linda Nilson about something called "specifications grading." I wasn't sure whether or how it would work, but in the spring of 2015, I threw out my traditional script and made yet another attempt to reimagine my grading. And here is what I've learned.

Posted on February 16, 2016 .

Looking Back on the Backwards Survey

In November 2012, CTE Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor of History, Caleb McDaniel, wrote a brief essay about his plans to teach his United States history survey backwards—by starting in the present and working his way back to 1848. After teaching it twice in slightly different forms in 2013 and 2015, he recently reflected on his experience in his personal blog. In this post, we are pleased to re-share Caleb's extensive and thoughtful analysis with our readers.

Posted on August 21, 2015 and filed under Humanities, Case Studies, Course Design.

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Learning is a social process mediated by collaboration with others. Given the sociability of learning,  how can we maximize student interaction and set up a social context in our classrooms for meaningful and productive learning? While there are lots of ways to encourage and support interaction among students, class discussions are perhaps the most intuitive way for many faculty and students. In this blog post I offer some tips and tricks for creating good discussions in any classroom.

Posted on August 13, 2015 .

Lessons from a Toy

In a fascinating article from 2011, a team of psychologists and cognitive scientists from UC Berkeley, the University of Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard report on an experiment they conducted with 85 children between the ages of 4 and 6.  The children were divided into four groups, with each group experiencing a different experimental condition.  Each condition involved the use of a specially designed toy. I was drawn to this study because I think it has implications for higher education.  Although our brains change and mature dramatically as we age, the mechanisms by which we learn do not necessarily shift as much as we might think.

Posted on August 6, 2015 .

Academic Blogging and Student Evaluation Click Bait: A Follow-Up

A few weeks ago, we published a piece in which I argued that nearly everything written about student evaluations on the internet is a form of academic click bait, and that there is often little-to-no relationship between the viral success of these pieces and the quality of their arguments. I was, of course, aware of the irony of making such claims on the internet, particularly via a blog post that intentionally avoided the literature I called on all of us to read. And as this piece got a great deal of attention in the days after it was posted, I couldn’t help but smile as my intuition on these matters was confirmed.

Posted on July 28, 2015 and filed under Evaluation.

Teaching the Storm: Pedagogical Lessons from Alice Goffman’s "On the Run"

Alice Goffman's book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City received more attention than most top sociologists at the pinnacle of their careers could hope for. However, the positive reviews that On the Run enjoyed early on were quickly joined by criticism and controversy. Ultimately, the On the Run controversy raises important pedagogical questions for us.

Posted on July 16, 2015 .