Teaching Tip: Just Ask

What’s one of the best, quickest things you can do to improve your teaching?  Get formative feedback from your students BEFORE the semester is over.  I know that you already will be encouraging students to complete end-of-semester ratings forms, but those forms frequently don’t tell you what you want to know for several reasons.  Students may not complete them thoughtfully (or at all), they may interpret the items differently and the items themselves may be unclear.   If students don’t feel that your feedback helps them learn, what are they looking for that they aren’t getting?  The best way to find out is to ask your students for feedback now, while there’s still time to change things.

There are lots of ways to do this, from simple to complex.  The easiest way is to ask simple, open-ended questions.  But do NOT ask students what they liked and did not like about the course so far.  That’s an invitation for comments on everything from your clothing to the heat in the classroom.  Ask them what helped them learn the most and the least.  One approach I like is to ask students three questions:  1) what aspects of the course would you keep exactly as it is; 2) what would you keep but improve;  3) what would you toss?

A mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be that broad.  Perhaps you’d really like to know what students think of a particular assignment or reading or maybe you’ d like their feedback on a broad issue like class participation, group work  or the attendance policy.  Create a series of questions that will give you more in-depth understanding of just that aspect of your course.  You may also want to ask students to honestly (and anonymously) tell you how often they do the reading or how much time they spend out of class studying.  This information can help you better understand the rest of the feedback and it also may give you some insights into overall issues in the class.

In her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer points out that student end-of-course evaluations don’t really help students themselves – maybe future students will benefit, but not those filling out the forms right now. This fact, coupled with limited evidence that their evaluations actually result in change, makes students less motivated to complete evaluation forms.  But mid-semester assessment means that there’s still a chance for students to make a difference in ways that directly impact them.  If students are concerned about confidentiality, you can have the assessments administered by a student worker or colleague and collated by the office (the CTE can help with this if needed).  Or you can devise a survey that doesn’t require handwritten responses.

What do you do with the feedback once you get it?  Share it with students!  If they are dissatisfied with something that you cannot or will not change, you can at least explain why.  If you can make a change, students get to see that their opinions are valued, and the class develops a sense of collaboration.   According to Weimer, students also learn when you share and reflect on their feedback in class.  For example, if you get vague feedback (“that reading was bad”),   you can reflect out loud about how difficult it is to improve without more specific information – what made it bad?  Was it too long? Too difficult?  Students see the need to be more detailed and constructive.  Learning to give constructive criticism is like most other skills; it needs practice and feedback.  And if students know you are going to heed it, they will be more likely to deliver helpful responses.

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