It’s Working for Me. Is It Working for You?

March 18, 2018

Ah, Spring is in the air and Spring Break, that oasis of energy replenishment, is in sight! Chances are the startup of the semester and everything that goes with the first weeks of getting the course off the ground have taken all your attention and you've had little time to reflect on how things have actually gone. You’re in luck! Right at this very moment, it’s “mid-semester” --- the interlude between Act 1 and Act 2 of the course.  By now you and your students are well into the rhythm of the course. Your students have crossed the first major hurdle of mid-semester exams.  You have the beginnings of the needed data to evaluate the course thus far. You don’t need to wait to read the end-of-semester evaluations. The tea leaves are already readable.   

You probably have a good idea how instructional activities are working in the course and at least been able to jot a few notes for revisions next time you teach the course.  But how about what can be changed while this session of the course is happening? Waiting until Spring Break to reflect on the semester is often too late to make any significant changes to the learning experience of your students in the current semester.  Now - mid-semester - you still have time to change the trajectory of this semester.  

Schedule time on your calendar to reflect and recall on a week-by-week basis what worked well and what might need to change for future weeks.  Use something simplistic like this to record your thoughts:

Week

What happened? What worked well?

What needs to work better?

What can be done about this now?

1

2

3...7

 

If you have GSIs, ask them to do the same, discuss it in a meeting and brainstorm possible ways to enhance the learning experience.   Also analyze the mid-term exam to determine if there’s a pattern of which questions were missed and how those questions relate to the learning outcomes.  Some topics might need to be revisited to fully achieve the learning outcomes by the end of the semester.

Now let’s consider the other part of the equation --- your students.  Each semester there’s a new group of learners sitting before us. New personalities, new attitudes, new experience levels --- all impacting what actually occurs in any planned learning experience.  That’s one of the things that makes teaching so challenging. If you think that the first half of the semester has worked according to plan, remember that’s only one perspective. Before retooling for Part 2 of the course you need to ask learners what’s been working (or not) for them.

I know you may have a long list of reasons why you don’t want to ask for mid-semester feedback. You might not have done it before, think it will take too much time to accomplish in class, or your experiences with end-of-semester feedback have not been positive.  Before you dismiss it completely, consider the following advantages.


Advantage #1:  Asking how things are going may change your learners perspective about you and the course.  

Have you ever met a person who asked you how you are and actually stopped to listen to and care about your answer?  It’s rare, I know. But the few times it’s happened to me it’s made me feel as if my existence on the planet actually matters to others than those closest to me.  If there are 30 or fewer students in class, you and your learners probably know each other relatively well at this point. But if you are in a lecture hall of hundreds are you more than a hologram to your learners? And they to you?  Asking them how things are going, listening to and responding to their comments has the potential to make you all more real to one another.

Your response to the feedback presented to the class demonstrates that you actually read their thoughts and considered them.  How many of our students have had instruction delivered to them and feel they have no voice or part to play in the process (again, not until the end)?   Perhaps that’s why some students just vent on end-of-semester evaluations ---- they don’t actually think anyone will read their comments or that they will matter!  When they see you stand in front of them and respond to their comments with things that you plan to or will consider fine-tune moving forward, it might motivate them to be more engaged in the course because they see their involvement has an impact.  

Mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be an elaborate process. It can be a bCourses quiz or assignment that pops up 10-minutes before class ends.  Check out this resource for some very simple methods for mid-semester feedback: https://teaching.berkeley.edu/resources/improve/evaluate-course-level-learning#anchor1

Advantage #2:  It’s an opportunity to train your students in the art of providing CONSTRUCTIVE feedback.

I love this quote from Frank Howard Clark, “Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”

How many of us were trained outside of our academic roles in how to provide effective feedback?  Yet we assume our students know how to evaluate and communicate potential criticism constructively.  Here’s a 5-minute YouTube video entitled “The Art of Feedback: How to Give and Receive Feedback” that might be useful in helping your students provide effective feedback regarding the course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5m2xwVMMYI .   There are others out there.  Find the one that resonates with your communication style or make a 3-5 minute audio presentation of your own.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate --- Powerpoint, Camtasia or even a recorded Zoom can be used.

Here’s a CTL resource on using the Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID) method for mid-term feedback that also provides an opportunity for students to learn about providing constructive feedback by working with peers:  https://teaching.berkeley.edu/news/because-squeaky-wheel-should-not-always-get-grease-different-way-conduct-mid-semester

You have to weigh the pro’s and con’s yourself but mid-semester feedback has the possibility of training students in a skill they need both in the classroom and in their careers.  It might also improve their participation in and the usefulness of their final end-of-semester evaluation - not only for you but for every other instructor they evaluate.