Summary: Even some of the most experienced college professors may be surprised by the discrepancy between how they evaluate their own pedagogy and how students perceive and judge the teaching.
Pedagogical Dilemma: In the United States, the assessment movement has grown to such an extent that many colleges and universities only can get grants if they assess student work and can prove that the teaching of faculty members generates verifiable student success.
However, little help seems to be available to over-worked faculty members who often tend to concentrate on student papers as “a product,” rather than taking into consideration those concerns which many students will not share until they either drop out of a course or until they are asked to fill out an end-of-semester questionnaire, often yielding unexpected and not always flattering results.
Solutions: Aware that no one method can serve as a panacea, I’ve found two methods that have dramatically increased both retention rates and official end-of-semester student evaluations: (1) Weekly anonymous student feedback, and (2) regular email interactions with my students. The anonymous weekly feedback fosters confidence and leads to more open email exchanges between students and professor. As a result, instructors can fine-tune their teaching, both at an individual and at a class level, and help to improve the quality of student work.
Anonymous weekly feedback: Stage 1: Each week, on the last day of each class, during the last ten minutes, I ask my English and Interpersonal Communication students to take out a piece of paper (8½ x 11) and write down their class, section, and the date on the top left-hand corner—but not their name, to keep the feedback anonymous. I then ask my students to answer these four questions which I always present onto a large screen:
- Most important things I learned this week
- Items that were difficult or hazy
- My progress as a writer/communicator
- Any questions or comments
Stage 2: At the beginning of the next class with all of us sitting in a circle, I then read out the most relevant student statements and answer any questions. Example: “Can we leave after we have taken our tests?” If a question seems to address a problematic issue, I then ask the class to work in small groups of two or three and spend about a minute or so in discussing the issue, with each team then reporting briefly. This way the subject can get aired without anyone being put on the spot. Example: “I’d like it if the homework was talked about more in class and possibly worked on in class.” I then respond and participate in a class discussion.
Stage 3: At the beginning of the semester, I tend to read every answer and question, an invaluable if time-consuming task. However, after a few weeks, to save time and avoid repetitions, I read only those questions and comments that stand out. Example: “Meet us students halfway.” Here I ask the students to share with me what this request would mean to them and what they would consider a realistic approach to this issue.
Analysis of student feedback: Out of the multitude of feedback that faculty members receive, one could create several categories to develop response patterns which could help in understanding better both the students and oneself. Some of the categories could be:
Positive: “I am really excited about this class. I can’t wait.”
Neutral-positive: “I am unsure [of my progress], but my outlook is positive.”
Neutral: “I learned to avoid emotionally loaded language.”
Negative-positive: “My progress as a writer seems a little hazy right now, but I feel confident that I will move past this plateau.”
Negative-negative: “Very demanding, doesn’t allow the student to learn.”
Advantages of anonymous weekly feedback and follow-up:
- To get helpful feedback from the students, faculty members do not have to wait until the end of the semester, or, worse, until the next term when the official semester evaluations get released.
- Faculty members get a regular, weekly pulse-reading of each class and the opportunity to rectify any possible misunderstandings or weaknesses.
- The students realize very quickly that they are being taken seriously and, as a result, tend to become more positive in their attitude.
- By reading aloud and discussing in class anything the students have shared, both faculty members and students tend to develop a kind of rapport which can foster both effective learning and teaching.
- Because the anonymous student feedback is written every week, the faculty member has documentation to show the administration in case a student complains that “the whole class learned nothing.”
- The 5-10 minutes it takes to set up the end-of-the-week procedure for students to give anonymous feedback takes away valuable lecture and/or workshop time.
- Some students occasionally ask personal questions which have nothing to do with the class (“Are you married?” or “Are you Jewish?”). Faculty members have the choice to answer or leave those questions alone.
- The regular follow-up sessions the next week and the discussion of those items that seem controversial (“I’m not learning enough” or “This course is too demanding”) can take up significantly more time than 5-10 minutes, especially if faculty members encourage genuine dialogue.
- Faculty members who take the weekly student feedback seriously will have to spend extra time in organizing the information in folders and to interpret the data, not only for discussion with the students the following week, but also in terms of thinking about what one can do to improve one’s teaching altogether.
- Full and part time faculty members who teach at various institutions and have to spend a great deal of time traveling or who have family or other obligations and have no time for pedagogical research may give up after some time or, worse, may believe that once they have experimented with the weekly anonymous student feedback approach that there is no further need for regular feedback. Research shows that administrators, faculty members, and students who do not listen to each other regularly and who do not communicate well, can experience misunderstandings and frustrations.
CASE STUDY of an angry person who, through anonymous feedback, became a supportive student:
1. Misunderstanding: After the second session, one student wrote anonymously that he was very disappointed that the communications professor did not know or care about who had communicated in class and who had not.
2. Intervention: The following week, I shared with the class how sad I was in having clearly mixed up two students in this new communication class and I apologized. The same student who had written the negative comment then wrote: “The most important thing I have learned today is the professor is a fair person and has no problem with apologizing to his class.”
3. Result: This particular student, who had identified himself in class after my reading the anonymous feedback, was a middle-aged former Philadelphia Police officer, who now works as a State Parole Agent. Had I not used the anonymous feedback, I would not have known about the misunderstanding and could easily have been faced by a permanently angry student who might have felt slighted in many of our weekly three-hour class sessions. Instead, the student who had initially felt disrespected, dramatically changed and became one of the leading lights in the class and had a very positive effect on his classmates. The once angry returning adult student even asked me for a letter of recommendation at the end of the semester and sent me an update of his professional life just a few days ago:
“I just want to let you know that for the past year I have used some of your famous quotes in ALL my groups [of ex-prisoners]: 1. THE CAMERA OF LIFE IS ALWAYS ON. 2. TAKE COPIOUS NOTES. [. . .] Dr. Eger, I have tons of narcotic stories to tell and if you have any questions about the process, law, or impact of drugs on the community fell [sic] free to contact me. I would love to give you the true stories from a first hand experience.”
Recommended readings: A first introduction
Catlin, Anita, Michelle Kalina, and Napa Napa Valley Coll., CA. How To Institute the Cross/Angelo Classroom
Assessment Training Program on a College Campus, or, How To Create a Dynamic Teaching/Learning
Partnership between Teachers and Students. ERIC. EBSCO.
Cross, K. Patricia, Thomas A. Angelo, and Ann Arbor National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary
Teaching and Learning, MI. Classroom Assessment Techniques. A Handbook for Faculty. ERIC. EBSCO.
[One of the best sources for a wide range of Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)]
Fabry, Victoria J., et al. "Thank You for Asking: Classroom Assessment Techniques and Students'
Perceptions of Learning." Journal on Excellence in College Teaching 8.1 (01 Jan. 1997): 3-21. ERIC.