By Chandani Patel, Department of Comparative Literature and Program Development Specialist at the Chicago Center for Teaching
Why Collect Student Feedback?
Part of the process of student learning involves students reflecting about their own learning throughout the course. Soliciting this type of feedback from your students will help you assess their progress towards understanding the course’s content, the skills they are practicing through the course and also whether the various components of the course are helping students meet these objectives.
To this end, instructors should have a clear idea of what the learning goals of the course are before the course begins. These goals include both content (i.e. the material to be covered) and skill-based knowledge (i.e. what tools students will acquire), and they should be clearly articulated in the course syllabus. In this way, instructors will ensure that students have an understanding of what they should be learning throughout the class, providing them with proposed outcomes to evaluate in their feedback. Instructors can additionally respond to student feedback accurately and effectively if learning goals are transparent from the beginning.
Though there are a number of tools an instructor can use to acquire student feedback, we focus here on three relatively easy and effective ones: the minute paper, mid-course reviews (MCRs), and course evaluations.
The Minute Paper
What is it?
A low-stakes assessment tool, the minute paper is designed to give students an opportunity to reflect on their learning and give instructors a sense of where their students are in the learning process. By asking students basic questions, such as “What is the most important thing you learned this week?” and/or “What are you still struggling with?”, instructors will gather undirected feedback about their students’ learning.
How to use it?
To use the minute paper, set aside five minutes at the end of class, ask students to answer one or both of the questions listed above, and then collect the responses. Using the tool frequently \—every week, every time you try new activities, or when the students are not particularly responsive during class \—and letting students know that it is for you to be able to adjust the course as necessary to meet their learning needs, will help students understand the value of the exercise.
Another way to use this tool is to save student responses, and at the end of the quarter, return them to the students and have them reflect on their learning trajectory throughout the course.
What will it tell you?
Based on the students’ responses, instructors will gain an understanding of what concepts/ideas students are grasping and what they are still struggling with. As a result, instructors can make adjustments to the course to respond to student needs. These adjustments may involve spending more time on a particular topic, redesigning assignments, or reconsidering the format of the class. Because the syllabus does serve as a contract between the instructor and the students, we do not recommend making too many changes to it. However, we do suggest making changes that are both possible and will serve students’ learning needs. Whatever the outcome, it is crucial that instructors communicate to students that they have read and considered their feedback so that students understand the value of the exercise and know that their thoughts are essential to the course’s success.
Minimal class time is used and the undirected questions encourage individual thought. Students can track their learning and instructors get frequent feedback, especially about difficult topics or new classroom activities.
The undirected questions can lead to vague answers, and students might think of the exercise as busy work. Students might not provide clear or cogent thoughts, and instructors might not find the feedback immediately useful.
Mid-Course Review (MCR)
A mid-course review allows instructors to collect formative feedback from students during the quarter, when it can be acted upon to improve the course. It also reminds students that you, as an instructor, are interested in what and how they are learning.
How to conduct an MCR?
Instructors can either schedule a mid-course review through the Center for Teaching and Learning (http://teaching.uchicago.edu/?/graduate-instructors/teaching-consultations.html) or conduct one on their own. Two questions to ask during an MCR are: “What has been contributing to your learning?” and “What, if anything, would you change?” The openness of the questions should allow students to express their thoughts honestly.
If you conduct the review anonymously, students might feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. At the same time, having an instructor or teaching consultant in the room to help guide students’ thoughts can often result in more directed and precise feedback.
What to do after an MCR?
Instructors are encouraged to consider carefully what students have said, taking into account both positive and negative comments, and report back to the students promptly, generally during the next class. Let them know you have considered what they have said, tell them what aspects of the course will change, if any, and remind them that their thoughts are appreciated and valued as part of the collective learning process.
The open-ended questions generate free thought among students, allowing them to express their opinions more honestly. The instructor gets a sense of what is working and what is not fairly early on in the quarter and can therefore make adjustments as necessary. Students are generally very eager to voice their opinions about their learning process, if prompted to do so.
Students can harp on particular things, like the amount of reading or a specific assignment, because of the time commitment instead of its contribution to the learning goals. Students might provide a variety of feedback that cannot be easily used to make adjustments to the course or students may not have much feedback to provide.
Although course evaluations take place after the course has ended, reading evaluations carefully can help instructors evaluate student feedback for future teaching opportunities. Some useful tips are:
- Look for patterns that point towards a consensus among the students, whether it is about readings and workload, the format of the course, or particular assignments. Where there is negative consensus, consider removing that aspect of the course in the future. If there is a debate and students disagree about the worth of a particular reading/assignment/exercise, then the instructor should decide whether that aspect of the course meets the learning goals outlined in the syllabus.
- Pay attention to student responses about workload and assignments to determine if the intended connection between assignments and learning goals was achieved. In other words, did the students understand how each component contributed to their learning, and if not, what alterations can you make in the future to ensure assignments match up with stated learning goals?
- And finally, make sure to take note of the positive aspects of the course as a reminder to continue using those practices that worked in the future. Don’t get caught up only in seemingly negative comments\!
Evaluations allow students to reflect on the course overall, providing a space for them to reflect on what worked and what didn’t for them. They give the instructor a sense of students’ comfort level with readings and assignments, and they can often alert the instructor to overwhelmingly good or bad aspects of the course.
Because instructors do not have control over the majority of the questions asked, the questions can lead to unguided and imprecise feedback. In most cases, however, instructors can add questions to the evaluations, which can help solicit even more targeted feedback from students. Additionally, because students write these evaluations quickly and informally, the language used to evaluate tends to be overly hyperbolic. To avoid this kind of response, tell the students that you take their comments seriously and ask them to write the comments both clearly and constructively. Keeping all of this in mind will allow instructors to both gather the most useful feedback and to read evaluations in an informative manner.
- Angelo, T. A., and Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993).
- Davis, B.G. Tools for Teaching. (San Francisco: Jossey—Bass, 1993).
- “Do You Know Where Your Students Are? Classroom Assessment and Student Learning.” Speaking of Teaching, Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter 1993.
- Lee Haugen, “Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs),” Iowa State University.