Guest Blog: Getting Feedback

I’m very pleased to be able to introduce another guest post from Holly Snaith (Aston): if you’d like to contribute, then please just get in touch with any of us.

I was intending to write an entirely different post for this blog (which I’ll keep in the back pocket for the future). Instead, while mulling over what I’d like to say and browsing recent posts to consider the tone, I was struck by Simon’s last post on student reflections and self-assessment.

This year has been rather a whirlwind as my first year lecturing. In many respects the step up from seminar teaching has been far easier than I might have imagined, but it’s also entailed that I’ve had to think very hard about how to integrate the kind of interaction and mutual learning that I’m used to, into a far more prescriptive physical environment. It’s not so much of an interpersonal challenge to ask a quiet participant in a 10-student seminar what they think in order to boost their reflection and confidence; doing the same in a room of 100 is much more liable to be counterproductive.

One of the ways I’ve been trying to manage this is soliciting regular feedback through a variety of different means, and since interpersonal contact is now less of a reliable barometer (since the students that talk to me tend to be the ones that are more engaged) I have been getting creative. Some methods, I think, have worked better than others, so I wanted to mull them over below:

1. The formal module reflections.

These are standardised across our school and are mostly designed to allow students to assess our performance. While this is obviously valuable and important, it’s not terribly useful to us as teachers since students don’t tend to fill in much by way of qualitative reflection (so knowing that your average response to question ‘the lecturer made the subject interesting’ is 4.36 on a Likert scale of 1-5 doesn’t tell you very much about what you are actually doing right). As with Simon, therefore, I’ve been pushed to trying a few other tricks.

2. Informal module reflections.

I first drafted some informal accompaniments (we do the evaluations on hard copy, so this didn’t require any extra fiddling, although I have considered trying survey monkey via email) asking mostly about what subjects they enjoyed and did not enjoyed, which learning methods they got the most out of, whether and in what ways their confidence and knowledge had improved, and so on.

3. Questions in class.

This is by definition a little shallow in a lecture environment, but I make sure to build pauses into my lectures every few slides, to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback. I find that using the white board and prompting specific topics works well to get the students to volunteer answers, since it puts the focus on my writing things down, rather than on them speaking out loud.

4. Optivote.

My students have gone bonkers for optivote. I’m a little less sold (it works brilliantly in some sessions, but is little more than a gimmick for others) but I found it incredibly useful in interpreting the written feedback where it was potentially contradictory. The week after getting the forms, I used the qualitative sections (scant though it was) in order to get broader feedback. So, if one student said ‘I want more exams, rather than essays’ or ‘I didn’t find the week on the Commission relevant’ or ‘I thought this module was too hard in comparison to first year’, I was able to poll the whole class to find out how widespread this opinion was. The answers tended to be understandably split, but students liked that they were asked what worked for them (and were able to give reflection on topics they wouldn’t have independently thought of), and I liked that I was able to give far more substantive feedback for the module reflections I have to complete to go back to the school.

What have I learnt from this process? Mostly, that I need to explicitly build in reflection at an early stage. Students took it far more seriously when I told them in week one that they were active participants in the learning process and that I needed them to tell me what worked. Some seemed so used to playing a passive role that it wasn’t intuitive to them that they were ‘allowed’ to judge me throughout the process. As a result, I think I would in future run the process in week 1 in order to ask what their expectations of the module were and prepare them for thinking reflexively as they go.

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