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Feedback from Students

The evaluation process not only includes evaluation of the student learning but also evaluation of instructor teaching. My institution has a form that is given towards the end of the course called “Student Report on Teaching” (SRT). SRTs are given to students during the probationary period and then periodically after that. I haven’t seen an SRT since my probationary period over a decade ago. The infrequency of evaluation on the institutional level has left me interested in doing my own SRT.

My experience with the SRTs during my probationary period has left me with some concerns which suggests changes to the current form. My major concern involves what to ask on the SRT in order to gain useful feedback. Our institutional questions include questions like “Were tests and assignments graded and returned promptly”, which lead me to stay up all night grading exams so that I could return them during the next lecture. I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question! How could I possibly get exam results back any quicker than the very next class which was sometimes less than 24 hours after they wrote the test? Another question asks about whether course objectives were clear. I included the course objectives in the course outline and at the beginning of each lecture. I specifically asked at the end of the lecture if the course objectives were clear. Again, I was shocked to be rated negatively in response to this question on the SRT. If the course objectives were not clear, why didn’t students speak up during the course? I did not get the results until after the course was over and without student names so I could not follow-up on the concerns raised by the SRT. What is the point of doing evaluations if the information is untimely and of such poor quality, improvements cannot be made?

I found unsolicited student evaluations on a site called “Rate My Professor”.  While it was nice to receive positive feedback in such a public place, I found the negative feedback frustrating. Students leaving negative feedback often had the course number wrong which made it hard to take their comments about the course seriously. The students would also express dissatisfaction with my personal attributes without explanation as to why they felt I was rude or mean or evil or whatever else they didn’t like about me. One student even accused me of being a racist which I consider to be quite a serious charge and absolutely something I do not want to be. However, the student never said anything to me or filed a formal complaint. I have no idea what I did to deserve such a comment, and thus, I have no idea how to rectify the situation or even verify if a situation actually exists to rectify.

Despite this bad taste in my mouth, I still believe there is a need to gather student feedback. Thus I was interested in the Faculty Focus newsletter in my email this morning. In her article, “How to Get Better Feedback from Students“, Maryellen Weimer offers some tips:

  • Ask questions “about the impact of a policy, practice, behavior, technique, assignment, or instructional approach on students’ efforts to learn” rather than what students liked/disliked about the course and/or instructor.
  • Ask these questions immediately after the activity was experienced by the student during the course rather than a global survey at the end of the course when it is too late to do anything.
  • Teach students how to give constructive feedback. This instruction would include what is relevant and appropriate feedback by explaining what can be changed and what can’t as well as modeling the desired behaviour when giving feedback to students.
  • Show students that you take their feedback seriously by discussing the feedback with them. If feedback cannot be incorporated, explain why and invite other solutions to identified problems. I would even go farther and suggest not asking for feedback on anything you have no desire to change.

The most difficult tip to incorporate is asking the right questions and this needs to be explored further in future blog posts. I have several tabs open, so stay tuned.

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Answering Student Questions During Lecture

This short video gives some great advice on how to answer a student’s question during class. I’m happy to report that I already do these things!

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Countering Student Opposition to Active Learning

Richard Felder uses active learning techniques when teaching chemical engineering students at North Carolina State University.

I’m always open to advice from the trenches so I really appreciated his “Sermons for Grumpy Campers” about how to counter student opposition to active learning. He presents his advice as “mini-sermons”. The first two are about group work, which really interested me. As a student, I hated group work. As a instructor, I’m contemplating how to incorporate group work into the classroom. Felder addressed both of my concerns by stating that group work is the way the world works and it is best for the student to learn how to cope now. Good point.

When you use a proven teaching method that makes students uncomfortable, it’s important to let them know why you’re doing it. If you can convince them that it’s not for your own selfish or lazy purposes but to try to improve their learning and grades, they tend to ramp down their resistance long enough to see the benefits for themselves.

It would be much easier for me to stand up at the front of the room and talk about a subject I know really well. I’m finding incorporating active learning strategies into class time much more challenging. I have to find the right balance between lecture and active learning, I have to select a strategy that I think will be effective, and I have to motivate students to venture outside of the their comfort zone. So why would I want to make more work for myself? Simply, what is the point of teaching if you are using ineffective techniques? Doing the job well means I have to step outside my comfort zone too.

Photo courtesy: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/

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How to Promote Active Learning within the Classroom

We are not about to propose that you throw out lecturing and make every class you teach a total active learning extravaganza. You know more than most of your students do about your subject, and you need to spend part of your class time teaching them what you know – explaining, clarifying, demonstrating, modeling, etc. What we are suggesting is to avoid making lecturing the only thing you do.

(Felder and Brent, 2009)

As I mentioned in the previous post, active learning makes sense. Students cannot learn material passively, so the transition from traditional lecture format to active learning is intuitive. What teacher doesn’t want their students to learn better? Thus, I was all gung ho about the concept when I first discovered it. I developed several learning activities that I thought I could have the students do during lecture time instead of me talking.  My idea was that students would read the material before class and then we would spend class time learning. The complete opposite of the traditional model of the material being presented during class time and students learning the material outside of class. I turned my lecture into an “active learning extravaganza”.

It BOMBED.

BIG TIME!

Students did not come to class prepared or they didn’t understand what they read. I still had to spend time explaining the material. I learned that I couldn’t replace lecturing completely with active learning activities. I wish I had read Felder and Brent’s paper beforehand. My mistake was making the exercises too long. Felder and Brent recommend no longer than 3 minutes.

A much better approach is to intermingle lecture with active learning activities. During the lecture portion, I can focus on more common mistakes or the more difficult concepts, with the rest of the material still in the course handout. The next step is to look at the course material and identify which concepts need lecturing and then how to incorporate a brief active learning activity after the lecture portion.

I still need to refine the balance between course material and learning. I suppose that job will never be done, but shouldn’t prevent us from trying.

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