Teaching

A Great Way to Obtain Quality Student Feedback

School's out for summer! Take 2.jpg

I’ve just completed my 15th year of teaching high school students in the area of biblical and religious studies. And I’ve learned a lot during my 15 years.

I’ve learned that in spite of having a plan, things don’t always go the way I’ve planned.

I’ve learned if I don’t have a plan, don’t try to wing it, because students will see right through it (very early lesson).

I’ve learned I can’t get better as an educator if I don’t know what I’m doing right.

I also can’t get better as an educator if I keep doing the same things that have a negative impact on my students over and over again. That’s called insanity.

So I learned that to know how well I’m doing as a teacher, I must ask those whom I serve how well they are being served. I must ask for feedback from my students.

For some teachers, asking for feedback from students can be a scary proposition. I’m no different. Because I might get slammed.

And, of course, my feelings might get hurt.

But for any teacher to improve his or her teaching practice, it’s necessary obtain feedback from the learner.

I’ve been asking for that feedback for many years.

When I first began, I asked my students to fill out feedback forms with ratings-type questions, asking students to follow up their rating with written feedback to elaborate on their responses. I’ve received some good feedback that way. However, students often don’t go the extra mile to provide that type of feedback, especially if it’s at the end of the semester. Students just want the semester to end, and to do anything extra is not on their radar.

After awhile, I began creating Google forms to obtain feedback. Using technology to ask the same types of questions was a bit more efficient, yet, students still weren’t providing the detail I was seeking.

I was probably asking for too much. Or not asking for the information I needed in the right way.

I recently read about a way to elicit student feedback in a way that not only provides effective feedback for the teacher, but also might be a little fun for the student – writing a “Letter to Future Students of Mrs. Solomon’s Class.”

mailboxInstead of directing my students to a Google form with the standard questions, I used the Google form to present my students with the following prompt:

Now that we’re done with the course, I’d like you to reflect on the course’s high points and low points, and offer advice to those who will sit in your place next fall.  What do you wish you had known going in to the class?  What do you wish you would have done differently?  What should future students know about the course and your teacher, Mrs. Solomon?

It seemed the students had a bit more fun completing these evaluations. But more importantly, in my mind, I obtained the type of feedback I had never received in past years that I had always sought after.

In past years, I’d get favorable reviews, not really understanding why the reviews were favorable. This year was a bit different. For example, one student wrote:

Hi Future NT Student,
Going into this course, I expected to be just sitting and memorizing names, dates, and other information as we went through the books. Instead, we have had interactive activities and amazingly fruitful discussions about the Bible itself, present-day interpretations of biblical ideas, and many pertinent ethical issues. If you ask Mrs. Solomon a question, she truly thinks about it with an open mind from different view points and the resulting answer is well thought-out and unbiased. I don’t think I would have done anything differently except for maybe participate more at the beginning – our class discussions (especially towards the second half of the semester) have been amazing because of our class’s participation. This class has definitely been one of the most interesting classes I’ve had and it has taught me so much about the New Testament and about life in general.

This “letter” provided valuable feedback for me in that I learned that the “new” way I did discussions in the class was fruitful for my students. The way I conducted class for this student successful.

Another student wrote:

…there are open note quizzes and discussion quizzes that end up making you remember more information in the long run than you would if you had to cram to memorize your notes the night before.

I learned from this comment that the methods I use for assessment have been effective. It’s always been the bane of my existence to have to have students memorize information for a “test.” I mixed it up this year, trying to provide different methods of assessment that suited all my students.

I am writing to you to tell you all about Mrs. Solomon’s New Testament Bible class. Honestly, nothing surprised me academically in the class, except I did not expect us to have such profound and deep discussions. I felt like not only were we learning about history and the bible, but how to apply the bible to our lives, which I think is the most important. We were able to learn, grow, and discover new things in this class. Honestly I don’t think Mrs. Solomon could have made the class any better. She focused on the learning aspect of the class and less about grades, which I truly appreciated. Since I wasn’t as worried about my grade, I was less stressed and more of a willing participant in class. The advice that I could give to future students, is to participate in class, because if you don’t you will honestly miss out. Don’t be afraid to open up, because your bible class can become a lot closer with each other and enjoy each other’s company throughout class time.

(emphasis mine)

I wanted to include this because one of the things I tell my students is that it’s not the grade that matters, but what you learn and how you learn. It sounds like lip-service to say it at times, but I now have evidence that my teaching methods reflect this mindset.

Student feedback is no fun unless you receive some constructive criticism.  A student remarked:

…I really appreciated the way that Mrs. Solomon taught the bible as a historical text, rather than a religious one. I wish we had done more projects, or at least done assignments that were different. We did a lot of the same stuff.

I didn’t include enough variety in terms of assignments in my course. I’ve already got a solution for this (I’ll talk about this later). But it reaffirmed for me that students need a bit of variety to keep things interesting.

Here’s another one that showed me how important it is to check student work:

I think that you should walk around the classroom to check for annotation work, giving the students a little feedback along the way and also ensuring everyone did the work they were supposed to do.

Got it. Will do.

Here is one last one that scared me when I first started reading it.

To whomever it may concern,

The class you are about to take is incredibly boring and teaches absolutely nothing about the New Testament. There is no interaction, no discussion, no fun, and certainly no enthusiasm on the part of the instructor. Literary devices are overlooked to push the Christian agenda of the Bible, and there is certainly no room for your take on the text. Brace yourself for a semester of gritty, hard work and tedious lectures that ultimately serve only to glorify Christianity.

Also, everything above is entirely false. This class was not at all what Old Testament was– at least for me. Filled with conversation and passion, this is a class that teaches both the objective historical context of the Bible and the subjective thematic meanings within the passages. There will be creative thinking, there will be analytical thinking, there will be individual thinking, there will be group thinking; there will be a lot of thinking about the concepts explored by the authors of the Bible followed by a lot of discussion in which you will be introduced to countless other viewpoints and begin to harbour a deep appreciation for the complexity of the Biblical text, regardless of your religion. This is a great class. Mrs. Solomon is clearly both highly knowledgeable about and incredibly enthralled by the New Testament, and her teaching style definitely reflects it. This is not a difficult course, nor is Mrs. Solomon a difficult instructor— just pay attention. My advice: do your reading, do your annotations, take good notes, and you’ll be fine.

I don’t include these excerpts to toot my own horn. I include them because I learned a lot about my teaching practice from these “letters,” feedback that I’ve not ever received from a “traditional” student feedback or evaluation method. I’m not saying that the traditional methods are not valuable. It seems, though, the “letter” format was more fun for my learners, because they know their letters will be seen by future students. They will have an impact on the success of my future students.

Nonetheless, next time I do this, I will ask students to expand upon the “lows” of the course by asking them to include in their letters:

  • What did you not like about this course?
  • Provide some insight about problems you had in the course.

If your academic year has not ended, and you’re wondering how to find out what worked in your teaching and what didn’t work, I recommend asking your students to write a letter to your future students. You should get great information to help you as you reflect on your past year to make your next year a great one for your future learners.

Have you used this method of obtaining feedback in your teaching practice? What methods work for you? Let me know in the comments.

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