Teaching presents many challenges, including that the same class can go very differently depending on your group of students. The same material can seem simplistic or complex, slow or fast, or even, mysteriously, all four. Things previous students understood can puzzle this term’s group while they easily grasp something that took three lectures last time.
To gauge how things are going, I incorporate a midterm check-in with students in my courses. Using a simple and short survey, I can see where students are and adapt the course to help address confusion or difficulties they encounter with the material. Doing so can help improve the student experience in the course and gives instructors the opportunity for a second attempt at innovation or repair. Often the issues that come up are minor, but addressing them can do a lot to improve student satisfaction. Below, I lay out the questions I use in my own courses and how I implement and address feedback.
Existing research is quite negative on the connection between teaching evaluations and ‘teacher quality’ (Richardson 2005, among many others), even in the case of student feedback such as this (Kember et al 2002). However, this feedback can be useful in that it is geared to your specific course and you can actually ask the right questions to follow up. Furthermore, if you work to address the critiques that arise in the feedback, it is likely that you will improve the course and student experience.
In my courses, I aim to send students a short anonymous survey between weeks 4 and 5. I aim earlier if the course is ‘newer’ or something seems ‘off’ so I have more time to adapt. I usually ask the same questions and then I summarize the feedback for the students and lay out a plan to address/improve the concerns.
Six Easy Questions
The questions I use in my surveys are below. I’ll explain the rationale behind each, but these can easily be seen as a jumping-off point. I think it’s key to keep things brief, otherwise you will likely get very few responses.
- How are things going (scale of 1-5) *Note: it would be great to scale 1-6 to mimic CTEC’s scale
- Why did you give the response you gave above (be specific)
- What is one thing that is going well? Why? (be specific)
- What is one thing that can be improved? Why? (be specific)
- What suggestion do you have to improve the issue above? (be specific)
- What is one thing you can do to improve how things are going?
For the first two questions, I ask a question similar to what one sees on CTECs (Northwestern’s post-course evaluation surveys), but then I ask for additional information—why. As an instructor, it is frustrating to not know why a course is given the rating it is. Are the students bored because it is too easy? Too hard? Too early? These all have different solutions! Here, students are encouraged to be specific about their response. Sometimes it’s because they wish the homework was due at a different time. This is an easy fix and can be addressed quickly.
I ask what’s going well because it can both blunt the blow of what is not going well, but also because it can encourage students to find the positive in the course if they are struggling or have many things they’d like to change. Moreover, it can help show where students see the value when making changes for future courses.
The area for improvement is important because sometimes there are structural issues (the homework assignments aren’t building to the exams, for example), management issues (TA troubles or they feel you are unreceptive in office hours), or issues you don’t see (grading feels inconsistent or unclear). Providing students with the opportunity to discuss what to fix is helpful because (a) it gives students a voice and (b) the complaints can highlight legitimate issues that should be addressed regardless. Thus, getting a first attempt at addressing these grievances can not only improve your course rating but also enable you to move toward course improvement more rapidly. This can be especially useful if you don’t teach the same course every quarter – after a round of evaluations, it will often be nearly a year before I teach the class again. At that point, my memory is much less fresh about what the real concerns were and my ideas about fixing them.
I also ask students what they can do because it reinforces that they too play a role in how well class is going, specifically regarding discussion. Students are often refreshingly honest here and many give responses like ‘do the reading’ or ‘ask questions when I’m confused.’ I don’t (yet!) have data to support this but, anecdotally, it does seem to help nudge students to engage more.
An additional benefit of student feedback can be the role of information provider for the class. I sometimes add a question about pacing (is this class moving (1) too slow to (5) too fast?). It is always surprising to the ‘1’ students that the ‘5’ students exist and vice-versa. This can help address frustration in each group, as it makes clear that some students need a different pace.
The key to student feedback, however, is actually implementing it. Once I’ve gathered the feedback, I present the quantitative information to the students. I let them know what everyone has said about what is going well and what needs addressed (it is not uncommon for the ‘going well’ element to be on the ‘needs improved’ list). I then present a few items that will be changed, and how (for example, students found the assignment structure confusing in one course, so I simplified it). I may also explain which elements will not be changed, and why. Often these are really challenging to fix (timing or location of class, textbook or other course materials), but I do make a note for the next time I teach the course.
I have found that students respond positively to a midterm feedback check-in and seem to appreciate the opportunity to weigh in. I like the accountability question to reinforce that they also play a role in their education. The feedback offers a nice way to get ahead of any issues and can help frame the course for students when doing a review on the last day. I try to end with a recap of our course goals and learning objectives, how we worked to meet them, adjustments we made and where we ended. Incorporating student feedback is simple to do and does not take much time.
- Kember, David. Doris Y. P. Leung & K. P. Kwan. 2002. Does the Use of Student Feedback Questionnaires Improve the Overall Quality of Teaching?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27:5, 411-425, DOI: 10.1080/0260293022000009294
- Richardson, John T. E. 2005. Instruments for obtaining student feedback: a review of the literature, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30:4, 387-415, DOI: 10.1080/02602930500099193
Get in Touch
Questions/comments? Contact Dr. Clipperton.