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 .