Do you want a safe, simple way to improve your course and to improve the educational environment for your students?
Early term assessment provides an opportunity for instructors to ask two core questions – “What’s working for your learning?” and “What could work better for your learning?” – about the course while we, and our students, still have time to make a difference in shaping some teaching and learning practices within the educational environments we share.
Early term feedback provides an opportunity for instructors to ask students about how they are (or could better be) learning as well as finding out more about what they are learning, to respond to student by sharing what we have learned about both teaching and learning in analysing the data, and to discuss together a plan for adjustments in teaching and learning practices moving forward.
An early term assessment of teaching and learning (between Weeks 3 and 8) is one of the most recommended formative approaches for gathering specific, useful qualitative and quantitative data regarding students’ experiences in and ideas about the educational environment. Recent research by McGowan & Osguthorpe (2011) demonstrated that when faculty conduct early term assessments and make pedagogical adjustments, students perceive positive improvements in their learning as shown in teacher evaluations at the end of the semester.
The value of an early term assessment starts with gaining access to student perceptions regarding learning and teaching, but ultimately rests on changes to the learning environment. Most students are generally eager to give feedback to instructors on the quality of their learning (McGowan & Osguthorpe, 2011). Handled appropriately, early term assessments are a simple but effective way to not only help your students achieve their learning goals but also to improve formal end-of-course evaluations.
Gathering early term feedback can be set up so that students respond only as individuals or as parts of smaller to larger consensus building teams. Students might respond online or during class. Teachers might make use of a teaching consultant to facilitate the session, or ask teaching assistants to set up the process, or take on that momentary administrator role to provide context and directions before stepping out of the room once the forms are distributed to students. And the feedback process can be shaped to take as few as 5 minutes or to extend to 20 minutes when students both write and discuss aloud their responses.
We’ll start with examples here, then discuss considerations for adapting and incorporating Early Term Feedback into courses, large and small.
Early Term Feedback – Smaller Class: Student might respond to these “What works…?” and “What could work better…?” queries individually, or in small groups aiming for agreement on two specific examples for each of the broad questions.
Early Term Feedback – Larger Class: This single page sheet mixes quantitative questions focused on instructor behaviours with open-ended queries about student learning.
Early Term Feedback – Lecture + Sections: A single instrument for gathering feedback about a course overall, as well as about lecture and lab/discussion/studio sections associated with the course.
Early Term Feedback – Student Learning Perspective and Early Term Feedback – Instructor Performance: Both of these forms set out three basic queries on a half-sheet of paper for students’ written responses. The questions are easily dropped into a Google Form making use of short answer options for responses. The Learning Perspective offers sentence stems for students to complete with regard to learning strengths and needs. The Instructor Performance queries ask students to comment on clarity of course organisation, and conveying of information in written and verbal formats.
Gallery of Student Feedback Questions: By navigating six subheadings – from course organisation, to effectiveness of teaching, readings and assignments, to student perception of learning and workload/work efforts – teachers are invited to craft their own early term feedback forms.
Gathered via paper forms, or through course-specific online surveys (including Google Forms, which collects feedback as a spreadsheet, and which can be set up to anonymise responses), the questions range from open-ended questions focused on student learning to Likert-scaled queries addressing supporting course materials, and teaching effectiveness.
In smaller courses, the collected data are fairly easy to analyse as the short comments can be sorted into themes, and the scaled data sorted into charts. The data sorting in larger courses requires additional time, with the work made easier via participation of an entire teaching team in the process of coding, often after typing up, open-ended responses. Still and all, teachers of large sections report that the time invested in data collection and analysis at early term generally enhances time spent in teacher-student interactions for the remainder of the term.
Group-Generated Student Responses
In smaller courses, the benefits of group-generated responses to the early term assessments – beyond students practicing new ways of inquiry together – are primarily two: In hearing from other students, peers come to understand ways in which the teaching/learning activities do work for other students, which seeds both awareness about learning and development of specific suggestions for change. Additionally, the group-based process mindfully set up can have the effect of drawing out divergent views, and draw those ideas into the conversation. In working with student-identified themes, instructors gain student-generated language as well as ideas to draw on in reporting back to the students on analysis and next directions for learning and teaching in that course.
In larger courses, the benefits of allocating 15 minutes to small group feedback discussions are the same as those noted above. Additionally, fewer data sets will be generated – in a class of 200, there might be 30 response sheets rather than 200.
In either context, working with a teaching consultant – or swapping facilitation roles with a peer from outside your department/field – can afford both learners and students new perspectives on the feedback process. The outside facilitator can ask clarifying questions during small and large group student consensus-building discussions, can play a role in data analysis, and can become a sounding board as instructors interpret and act upon the ideas gathered.
- For in-class administration, set aside at least five minutes at the end of class to allow students to be fully engaged in the feedback process. For online administration outside of class, provide a limited time period (e.g., one day) for students to submit responses.
- Read all responses, focusing your perspective on the majority of statements as opposed to inordinate attention on individual statements that may carry emotional appeal. Create some themes can best describe responses with a similar focus.
- Talk with students at the next class meeting for 5-10 minutes, thanking them for their feedback and summarizing the themes you found in the data.
- For any feedback that implicated instructional change, discuss the changes that you are prepared to make and reasons why some student suggestions may not be appropriate (e.g., eliminating the final exam).
- Make those changes visible to students in an amended course syllabus and/or through specific behaviors (e.g., providing more clear expectations about upcoming assignments or grading processes).
McGowan, W., & Osguthorpe, R. (2011). Student and faculty perceptions of effects of midcourse evaluation. In Miller, J. & Groccia, J. (Eds), To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, 29, 160-172.