David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

What Are They Learning? And How?

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In my previous column, I wrote about the importance of tailoring your teaching to your students. In particular, I advocated listening to students, canvassing them to learn about their prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their associations. As a few readers pointed out in the article’s comments, such advice is perhaps more easily offered than followed.

The idea of starting a discussion by asking students what they know, and don’t know, about a topic gets more and more difficult as class sizes go up. In a lecture hall with 200 students, opening class by asking, “now what do you all know about pre-industrial America?” may not be the most effective strategy. Class time, as well, is an issue. Most instructors have a lot of ground to cover over the semester, and not enough time to handle it all. Adding in time for informal chats about students’ prior knowledge and current understanding may feel impossible.

So how do we respond to our students’ needs in a way that leaves room for other pedagogical priorities?

What we’re looking for here are practical ways to elicit and make use of quality student feedback. We want to learn from students the information—about what they knew beforehand, what they’ve learned from us, and what they still don’t understand—that will help us teach more effectively. Providing students with ways to give us that information not only helps us tailor our teaching, it helps them become more aware of themselves as learners. That, in turn, can help them better achieve their goals.

Back in July, I wrote about the potential benefits of administering a survey to students at the beginning of a course. It remains a good idea, both early on and intermittently throughout the class. Surveys can be short or long, pointedly about subject matter or more generally about the course approach, filled out in class or online. With the help of Google Forms or a free course-evaluation tool like the SALG instrument, you can collate and interpret student answers a lot more quickly than if you had to count a class full of raised hands.

If you think that conducting a survey would take up too much class time, a quicker option is the One-Minute Paper, one of the more popular “classroom assessment techniques” from the 1993 book of the same name by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. You simply stop class a few minutes early and ask students two basic, but important, questions: “What is the most important thing you learned during this class?” and “What important questions remain unanswered?” Students write their responses in the minute or two remaining in the class period, and hand in their answers on their way out the door. You’re left with a stack full of brief responses to help guide your next class period. Students are left with a better understanding of your teaching, the result of having to evaluate the class at its conclusion.

If even the One-Minute Paper takes up more class time than you’re comfortable with, why not move outside the confines of the classroom altogether. Try treating homework assignments as formative, rather than strictly summative, assessments. That means constructing your assignments so that students’ answers can help you update your teaching approach and help students better understand their own progress. For example, swipe a trick from “Just-in-Time Teaching,” the pedagogical approach developed by instructors in a number of physics departments in the late 1990s. Instead of collecting student work in class, have them upload their assignments to the course-management system at least a few hours before class. That way, you’ll be able to look at their answers and alter your approach in the classroom that day accordingly, offering students an almost immediate pedagogical response to their feedback.

A few years ago, I did this with reading-response paragraphs in a literature course. I had students turn in a weekly paragraph in response to their reading. It was due every week at the same time: by midnight the night before class. Students were able to see their peers’ answers after they turned in their own, which allowed them to come to class with an awareness of how others had responded to the material. It allowed me to go into class with a good idea of what students understood and what they didn’t, and let me use their answers as examples in class to help illustrate important points.

Any of those strategies will help you learn more about what, and how, your students are learning, and make your teaching more effective. What these efforts also will do is offer students a way to actively evaluate their own learning, understand their progress in the course, and see just how far they have left to go.

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