Assessing our Teaching Throughout the Semester

This semester, Grand View is reducing the number of course sections that will use the IDEA student ratings of instruction; sections that don’t use this instrument will use an in-house questionnaire instead. While we’ll still receive the same amount of student feedback and comments, this move has sparked some (constructive) conversation about the larger question of student evaluations of their learning experience and how we use it to reflect upon and improve our teaching. In particular, when it comes to putting together our faculty evaluation portfolios or post-tenure reviews, we need to consider what forms of evidence we use to talk about our teaching practices and their effectiveness. Often, we lean on end-of-semester instruments, like IDEA data or Core assessment rubrics. But teaching is a complex endeavor, and we need a wider range of evidence to accurately tell our pedagogical story. 

In-term evaluations are a potentially rich source of data to help us reflect on our teaching. There are a number of ways, both formal and informal, we can gather feedback both about and from our students regarding their learning. Most importantly, though, we don’t need to set aside large amounts of class time or construct a formal survey in order to collect good data. One easy way to gather feedback from our students is to do quick “exit papers” that they complete–anonymously, of course–in the last few minutes of a class period and hand in on their way out. The most effective technique is to use brief, well-chosen questions that prompt students to give honest and useful feedback. Here are some sample exercises that can help us quickly and conveniently collect quality feedback:

  • The “keep/start/stop” survey: Ask your students to briefly answer these three questions:
    • what should we keep doing?
    • What should we start doing?
    • What should we stop doing?

In a few minutes, we can get good feedback on what’s been working and what we might want to revisit. And if we do this exercise after the first few weeks of class, we have the opportunity to make any necessary changes while there’s still time for them to have an impact. Variations on the “keep/start/stop” type of informal evaluation include:

  • “Three Things”: Craig Nelson of Indiana University (and a former GV Summer Institute speaker!) uses this brief set of questions to gauge student learning and to assess the efficacy of his classroom practice:
    • What are three important things you’ve learned so far?
    • What are three aspects of this class that have helped your learning so far?
    • What are three things that you wish were different?

This set of questions allows us to not only get a sense of how effective our pedagogical practice is for a particular course, but also to gauge whether or not our students are learning important course concepts and material.

  • “Plus-Delta”: Have students draw a square, then divide it into a 2×2 square chart. The left two squares are “plus,” and the right two are “delta [change].” Have students enter the following information into the various quadrants:
    • top left-what about the course is most helping their learning [plus]
    • top right-what they would change about the course [delta]
    • bottom left-what about their own choices and actions is most helping their learning [plus]
    • bottom right-what they would change about their own choices and actions pertaining to their work in the course [delta]

The advantage of this exercise is that it not only gathers feedback about particular course elements that are working well for student learning, but it has students consider their own agency in the class. How are they approaching the material outside of class? Are those practices interfering with them successfully learning ? In this sense, the plus-delta exercise can create some “teachable moments.”

In addition to this type of informal feedback exercise, we can also administer more formal surveys to our students at midterm to “take the temperature” of our course. It’s important to administer this type of survey in the same manner that we do end-of-semester course evaluations, in that students should complete them anonymously, and preferably with the instructor not present. A midterm survey can take a number of different forms; we could ask questions that target a particular area (if we’re using a new text or pedagogical approach, for example) for students to offer feedback on, or we can structure them similar to end-of-term surveys. There are some good examples of this type of midterm feedback instrument online; I’m partial to the sample forms offered by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching, which can be accessed by clicking this link.

Finally, one of the services CETL offers is the mid-semester Small Group Assessment. SGAs involve a trained facilitator from CETL leading your students through a highly-structured guided reflection on their learning and their own contributions to the class and its work (done without the faculty member present). Then, the facilitator analyzes the feedback, organizes it, and meets with the instructor to go over the results and discuss next steps. (You can find some descriptions of the process as it’s used at other schools here and here.) You’ll get a report with all of the student feedback anonymized and transcribed, as well as some analysis and recommendations based upon the written and oral feedback gathered from the class. This report is kept confidential; only the facilitator and instructor see it, and it’s not used for any other purpose than this type of formative assessment. The SGA is a great tool to gather meaningful feedback and improve student learning, and we’d love to help you use it. Feel free to contact us to set up a SGA for one of your classes.

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