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Why teachers should ask students for feedback long before the semester ends

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About a month after each semester, Gayle Golden sets aside a little time to ask her students about their learning.

The journalism instructor at the University of Minnesota keeps the process simple, with brief questions similar to these:

  1. What should keep happening in this class?
  2. What should we start doing in this class?
  3. What should we stop doing in this class?

Golden collects the results, which students give anonymously, then studies the comments and makes a list of all the information it has received. During the next class period, discuss the findings with your students. It tells them what suggestions you plan to implement, what recommendations you cannot follow, and why.

“If they said something to me like ‘I don’t want deadlines,’ I’ll tell them, ‘I heard a call to not have deadlines, I understand that deadlines are difficult, but I can’t do that in this class, and the reason is this —Lo I’m sorry, ‘”Golden explains. “By saying that, I have told you that I have heard you.”

This practice is called early feedback. Experts say it’s an effective strategy to improve teaching and learning quickly, sometimes as early as the next class period. It can be done with the basics (pencil and paper) or with sophisticated digital tools, such as chatbots.

The process of collecting and incorporating student feedback not only provides the opportunity to improve a course before too long, but it can also change the tone and culture of a classroom, allowing a teacher to demonstrate students who value their perspectives.

“My experience has been that if I give early feedback, my relationship with the class tends to be more open, just better overall, in the sense that they feel more comfortable talking to me throughout the class,” says Golden.

How to collect feedback

Asking for and responding to student feedback early in the semester can be pretty straightforward, explains Kris Gorman, an education programs specialist at the University of Minnesota Center for Educational Innovation. Between weeks five and eight, and after students have received the results of a major assessment, instructors ask students to rate how their learning is progressing. Instructors collect responses, then find out and explain what they are going to do differently.

“Tell your students what they can and can’t change, express gratitude and appreciation, and take action – close that loop,” says Gorman.

The simplicity of the process is its power. Students can immediately benefit from better course logistics and also from a more trusting relationship with a faculty member. And research shows that teachers who collect early feedback and use it to make changes to their courses with the help of a consultant, can raise your end-of-semester teacher evaluations.

“It’s one of the most effective approaches to changing teacher practices,” says Gorman. “In general, teachers and instructors are very receptive to student feedback. It’s often more motivating than almost anything else they do, in terms of changing teaching practice. “

Collecting feedback can be as easy as handing out tokens. But instructors can also take a more technical approach. For example, researchers from the San José State University used a chatbot to interview college students about the questions and concerns they had and the barriers they faced, in certain courses. Subjects were willing to offer feedback through the bot and also expressed support for continuing to rely on chatbots to achieve some of the course improvements they wanted, such as getting help answering basic questions about textbooks, office hours, and dates. delivery.

Assistant professor João Sedoc, who puts that concept into practice, asks students to chat with a personalized chatbot as a way to get feedback on his technology, operations, and statistics courses at New York University’s Stern School of Business. . You like that the AI ​​tool ties into your tech curriculum. And he suspects that the engaging nature of a chatbot generates more feedback from students than if it used an online survey or Google form instead.

“People express themselves more,” says Sedoc. “Which is always good: the more they tell me, the more I know.”

Finding ‘hanging fruits’ and ‘misalignment’

Early feedback can unearth a wealth of useful information.

Sometimes he identifies practical details of the course that pose problems for students, what Gorman calls “ripe fruit.” Students can request that assignments be due at 10 pm. M. Instead of 5 p.m. M. To accommodate the fact that they are in class all afternoon. Or they may find that a teacher’s announcements are not reaching them correctly through the learning management system.

These problems can be relatively easy to fix, as when Sedoc learned through initial feedback that the students in the back of the room couldn’t hear him well enough.

Or they may require a little more time and effort to resolve. During the pandemic, Golden learned through an early survey that students felt isolated working on their assignments alone, at home, rather than how they normally would: clustered in small groups at classroom tables. One person recommended that Golden organize students into Zoom group rooms so they could better collaborate.

The change required Golden to do some “technical gymnastics,” she says. But he felt the effort was worth it.

“It was more difficult for me to navigate, but for them it was much more comforting.” Golden says. “It doesn’t really seem like a big deal. But if I hadn’t asked them, and we hadn’t brainstormed together, I might have been stuck with this idea: this works for me, it’s hard for you. It was necessary to ask a student and express his concern. “

Student feedback can also highlight “misalignment” in a course that an instructor might not otherwise perceive, Gorman says. Survey results may indicate that students crave more concrete examples to better understand the material, do not understand how the assessments relate to the concepts they are learning in class, or do not feel prepared for the tests.

“I’ve seen people redesign their rubrics, better understanding how their students experience them,” says Gorman.

Detecting this type of misalignment early can prevent students and teachers from straying too far down the wrong path. For example, near the beginning of the semester, Sedoc asks students what they hope to get out of their classes, trying to see how well their expectations are. match the curriculum. Every now and then you will find that a student has years of experience with computer programming and is therefore overqualified for a beginner course.

Then Sedoc can tell the student, before it’s too late, that “they probably won’t get what they want from class,” he says, “because their level of technical proficiency is beyond what I’m calibrating in class. . “

Communicate care

There is a bit of vulnerability involved in asking for feedback. Students may offer criticism that is difficult to hear or that seems overwhelming to teachers already feeling overworked, for example, during a pandemic. Gorman suggests that teachers who are hesitant to open the floodgates with open-ended questions instead experiment with asking specific questions about specific course details.

“I’ve always encouraged people to only collect feedback if they are ready to take action on it,” he says. “If you don’t have the capacity, the worst thing you can do is collect feedback and not be willing to do anything to change.”

There are strategies that instructors can use to design survey questions to encourage students to offer relevant feedback rather than drift into personal or off-topic comments, the kind Gorman says women and people of color do. are more likely to receive.

“Try asking the questions about ‘What helps you learn?'” Says Gorman. “Students do not always express their comments in the most pleasant terms. However, when teachers raise it up front that they care about what students are experiencing and want to make changes, students will be more constructive than critical. ”

Some comments will inevitably feel negative. When that happens, instructors should try to “take what is actionable, drop what is emotional,” advises Gorman. But if you are still feeling defensive, Gorman recommends that you seek support from your institution’s teaching and learning center, apart from any formal evaluation process.

That’s what a professor at the University of Minnesota did when initial feedback revealed that his students perceived him as patronizing. The Center for Educational Innovation helped the teacher realize that after years of teaching the same material, he was so adept at predicting students’ questions that he kept cutting people in the middle of their sentences.

“I encouraged the instructor to listen carefully to the entire question,” says Gorman. Only then would he offer an answer and then ask, “Does that clear things up or do you need more explanation?”

The intervention helped improve the course that semester. And when the instructor continued his new approach the following quarter, “the weather experience for the students was completely positive,” says Gorman. “They didn’t experience the same person teaching the same class as condescending or dismissive.”

It’s an example of why, when a course gets off to a rocky start, Golden believes fear shouldn’t stop instructors from seeking feedback.

“Especially in the case of a class that you think is not going well, this is exactly what is needed,” he says. “It is like any relationship; you have to ask ‘what’s up?’ and talk about it sincerely. You will find that if you start doing that, the situation is likely to improve. ”

And even if a course works like a “well-oiled machine,” it’s worth asking students for initial feedback each semester, says Gorman: “Communicate an interest in doing it.”

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