The Importance of Getting Feedback

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After 38 years of teaching in higher education settings and 21 years at St. Thomas, I am hanging up my professional hat in May. With that much time spent in the classroom, I think I’ve learned a few teaching tricks, but there is always room for improvement. What I’m going to relate to you here is how I used information and ideas from IDEA student evaluations, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) workshops, and last summer’s seminar on blended courses to reach my personal peak of teaching the freshman introductory biology course last fall.

Biology 201 is a tough course because of its large enrollment of first-semester freshmen and wide disparity of intellectual talent and college preparation in the audience. Having taught the course more or less continuously since 1994, I thought I was doing a pretty good job, based on feedback from the SROT student evaluations. But, of course, the SROT wasn’t able to discern whether students were learning anything in the course. When IDEA was piloted in the fall 2008, semester, I was anxious to see if my SROT evaluations would be reflected by similar IDEA scores. I was shocked to find out that they were not similar at all, and that students did NOT feel that they were learning much in this course, nor did they think my teaching methods were helping them learn (from the page 3 analysis of the long form report). Obviously I had some work to do.

In Fall 2009 and Fall 2010 offerings of the same course (with the same large enrollment and naïve audience), I began to use the information from IDEA and WAC workshops to revise some of the exercises I had been doing in the class to mesh better with learning objectives. I’ll focus on one objective to illustrate this transition. “Learning how to find and use resources for answering questions or solving problems” has always been one of my objectives for this course. However, even when presented with resources, my students had difficulty using them. They are overwhelmed by the sheer bulk of the textbook and the immense amount of detail within. In addition, if they can’t find answers in their text, they use the web, and retrieve popular, often erroneous or misleading information. In the Fall 2008 course, only 41% of the students thought they had made substantial or exceptional progress on using resources to answer questions, and only 59% of them thought I had helped them find answers to their questions.

In the Fall 2009 course, I used case studies with probing questions to stimulate students to look for answers (outside of class) and helped them target appropriate reference sources. During the next class, working groups then shared their answers and wrote (in class) a summary of their findings. This used up a lot of class time, and also resulted in some poorly thought out and written answers. The feedback to the group was nothing more than a score for correctness of answer – not really helpful feedback on how to improve. Nevertheless, 61% of students in that course thought they had made substantial or exceptional progress on the learning objective, and 73% thought I had helped them find ways to answer questions. Not good enough.

In the Fall 2010 course, with a new approach under my belt which I learned during the summer seminar on blended courses, and having listened to Sherry Jordan and AP talk about how they used “low stakes” writing in their courses to improve student engagement as well as write to learn, I designed an exercise to be done on Blackboard outside of class that would accomplish several objectives: write to learn by investigating interesting (and I hoped, intriguing) questions, promote good research skills, promote the collaborative group-think solution to those questions, and provide feedback on how to improve (there were 6 of these exercises spread throughout the semester). And the results of my “experiment” paid off: 81% of the students thought they made substantial or exceptional progress on learning to find and use resources, and 89% thought I had helped them do it. What made such a dramatic difference from two years previously? Writing to learn about interesting topics, in which they had a choice of investigating a particular example in-depth, guidance on finding and using reference sources, and feedback (using the group discussion board feature of Blackboard) about where they had succeeded or needed to improve were all important. This makes sense in light of what IDEA recommends that we think about in designing our courses: choose appropriate objectives, design exercises that allow students to learn or practice that objective, assess students’ performance and provide feedback to them that helps them improve.

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