Are You Really Reaching Your Students?

February 23, 2016

The concept of early and ongoing check-ups is simple, and applies readily to our teaching in the form of feedback. It’s early in the semester, but it's never too early to do a thorough systems check to make sure the students, course, and you are ready for takeoff (or need to circle back for a quick fix).

While waiting at an airport gate for a flight, I enjoy watching the mechanics do their “check” of the plane. Perhaps it’s the rhythm and flow of the work, but I think it’s more so the comfort I get from knowing that someone with expertise is checking to make sure everything is working properly before we take off and have gone too far to turn back.

Remember that early feedback should be a two-way street. You want to find out from students what they’re learning. But you also need to let students know how they’re doing in the class. The purpose of formative feedback is to best promote student learning, and that’s easier to do when we regularly find out what students understand, let them know if they’re on the right track, and make adjustments accordingly.

Here are five techniques that promote a continuing dialogue between students and you about the teaching-learning process as a course progresses. Before implementing any technique, be sure you have identified what it is you hope to learn from using it. 

  1. Minute or Muddiest Point Paper. In the late 1970s, Berkeley physics professor Charles Schwartz developed the minute paper technique, which can be used in any discipline. At the end of a class period, ask your students to write for a minute or two on the following question: "What is the most significant thing you learned today?" Or, a complementary approach is to have students complete a muddiest point paper where they respond to this prompt: "What question is uppermost in your mind at the end of today's class?" The resulting minute/muddiest point papers, submitted anonymously, will enable you to evaluate how well you have conveyed the material and how to structure topics for the next class meeting. Skim their responses before the next class, and report to students, e.g., “Most of you thought X was the most important thing. Good.  If you didn’t, you might want to review the material, and if you’re still confused, see me in office hours.”  Conversely, you might say, “Most of you thought Y was the most important thing. That was not my intention. So I’d like to take a few minutes and reiterate my main points from the last class.” You can also stop class in the middle, or after an important point, and have them perform the same exercise/s.  Or you can, even in a large class, have them form into ad hoc groups, discuss what the important point was, and then have groups report.
  2. List key concepts or ideas. At the conclusion of a series of lectures or readings about a particular topic, ask students to write short phrases summarizing the three to five key concepts or main ideas about the topic. You can review these lists to verify whether your students have grasped the important ideas. Students can also use their lists to review for exams. You may want to initiate a class discussion that asks students to compare and contrast their entries or define and apply the concepts.
  3. Briefly summarize a lecture or a reading assignment, or restate the significance of a point you have just made (individually, or in pairs/small groups). At the beginning of the class period, ask students to summarize the main ideas from the previous class or the readings and to write one question they expect to be answered during class. Or you can request summaries at the end of the period to check on whether students understood the material you presented. Finally, you can stop after a particularly important point and ask for volunteers who can restate the significance of the point.
  4. Write a paragraph, or outline a brief talk, where students explain a key concept to someone outside the class or field (e.g., a parent, a high school student interested in the field, or a friend in a different major).
  5. Short quiz/assignment at the end of each unit of a syllabus (or more frequently as desired). Students can even grade it themselves in class. Research has shown that frequent, low or no-stakes quizzes (or similar assignments), aid retention and long-term retrieval of information more than few, high-stakes assignments. They’re also great tools that give you and your students insight into how well they’re doing in the course. If you notice a large number of students in the course getting a certain question wrong, or clearly misunderstanding a concept, you can deliver that feedback and address it accordingly - before it’s too late.

Making use of technology can be a helpful tool in support of robust feedback. Conduct simple polls using classroom response tools like Clickers.  In bCourses using the Discussion tool, you can ask students to respond to any of the above prompts outside of class (one consideration is that the responses are no longer anonymous - which may, or may not, matter). This can help reduce the pressure on class time, enable a running log and archive of student feedback and understanding, and allow for more thoughtful student responses/questions by removing the constraints of class time.   

Any of the above techniques are excellent ways of letting you and your students know how they’re doing—just remember to make your feedback to them an integral part of the exercise.