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Reflecting on Feedback in Planning for the Next Semester: 5 Questions

4 Jan Image is of a square cardboard box with the word "suggestion" written on the two visible sides.

The end of the semester after grades are posted is an opportune time to reflect on my courses and how they went. I was inspired by a recent blog post by David Goobler “Revision Is Essential in Teaching Tool”. In his essay Goobler encourages us to think of course planning for the next term as a process similar to writing. Begin with a rough draft to collect all of your ideas and then refine that draft in a series of revisions.

Whether it’s a first draft or a revision to my course, I like to use feedback data to inform my decisions. Feedback data can take the form of student performance on assignments and assessments, student responses on end-of-semester surveys, and my own ongoing notes that I keep throughout the semester.

I’ve organized this data-informed process of course revision as a series of 5 questions that I ask myself about the course.

Was the amount of student work appropriate?

First of all, how did students do? I look at their grades and their performance on assignments and assessments. How many did well? How many struggled? For those that did struggle, could it have been due to an inappropriate workload?

To determine if the workload is appropriate, I look at the student responses to the end-of-semester survey question “Approximately how many hours per week did you spend working on homework, readings, and projects for this course?” The guidelines for the UofM are for every credit hour, students should spend “three hours of academic work per week…averaged over the semester”. For a 3 credit face-to-face class that meets 3 hours a week, this means that students should be spending on average 6 hours a week on the course, excluding the class meeting times. I would look for the class average to cluster around 6 hours a week.

If student working time is significantly higher than that, it could mean that the workload was too high for students and suggests that I should make some adjustments. I consider if there are assignments and readings to reduce or eliminate while still providing enough support and practice to meet the course learning outcomes. It could also mean that the course learning outcomes are too ambitious and need to be scaled back. This analysis is especially helpful for recently flipped classes or online courses that have been converted from F2F classes. It is challenging to calculate the amount of time students need to spend on viewing lecture materials and readings outside of class.

If you find that there are no learning outcomes, assignments, or readings that you can eliminate, it may mean that you need to offer your course for more credits. Alternatively, students may not be using their work and study time efficiently. You can address this by providing study tips at the beginning of the semester and gather feedback early in the semester to see how students are doing with time management.

If student working time is significantly lower it could indicate a few different things:

  • The material was not challenging enough for students. Generally this goes along with overall good performance on assignments and assessments by students, however, if students disengage from the material because it is too easy, this could lead to poor student performance
  • Students weren’t interested in the material. If students don’t see the importance or relevance of readings and assignments, they will be less likely to complete them. You can address this in the next iteration by telling students why the topic, assignment, or reading is important and how it will benefit them.
  • There were no consequences for not doing the work. If there are no consequences for not completing readings and assignments, students will be less likely to complete them.

What did students find most and least useful?

To get at this information I create my own end-of-semester survey. I keep in mind that many students may suffer from “evaluation fatigue” at the end of the semester as they are asked to provide feedback in each of their courses, so I try to make the survey as easy as possible for them to complete. My useful assignment survey lists all of the course assignments and resources in a table that asks them to rate how useful each one was on a scale of 1 – 4. Because all they need to do is check boxes it’s not too daunting for students to complete the form.

This can yield some interesting results. I often say that an assignment is “good” or “went well” if students do well on it. However, just because students do well on something does not mean that they find it useful. I usually change or drop one assignment or resource every semester based on this feedback from students. On the flip side, sometimes I think an assignment didn’t go well because of voiced confusion or poor performance by some students then find through the end-of-semester survey that students found the assignment very useful. This tells me I should provide better support and instructions for the assignment next time.

Having this data is also useful for your next cohort of students. When you introduce an assignment or resource you can mention that last term’s students found it to be very useful.

What do students say in the open-ended feedback comments?

Because the questions are fairly general “What did the instructor do that most helped your learning?” and “What suggestions do you have for improving the course?” not all of the feedback may be terribly useful. But, usually there will be some concrete suggestions of things that worked for students and things that can be changed. I try to put the written comments in some type of context by looking for common themes and record how many students said a similar thing. This helps me be more objective about the feedback that I receive. Most instructors, including me tend to focus on the negative comments. An attempt to quantify responses can help me to view any negative comments within the context of all of the positive ones.

What do my semester notes say?

An annotated course syllabus is a great document to develop throughout the semester, making use of margins on a paper copy, or Comments in a document copy for notes indicating your observations regarding what worked well, how things could be changed, and ideas for next term. Combining this information with the end of semester feedback can further help me make decisions about what to change and what to keep.

How was my workload?

Finally, I always review my workload over the course of the semester. This is where my syllabus with notes can really help. Were there times when 2 assignments were due too close together and I ended up overwhelmed by grading? Were there too many discussion forum posts to comment on individually? If so, could I cut down my comments? Did I spend too much time grading an assignment because students weren’t prepared? Perhaps that assignment could be broken into smaller parts to spread out that work. This is a good time to ask yourself if a more efficient grading approach might be needed. For written assignments, the Center for Writing offers some excellent suggestions for responding and grading.

After reviewing all of this data, I find that discussing these findings with a colleague is a great way to help sort things out. Oftentimes I’m mired down in the details that a colleague can see past.

I take all this information together and sit down and sketch out the next semester syllabus in as much detail as I have the energy for. As Goobler says in his blog post “…if you leave course planning for the last minute, you’ll make things more difficult for yourself throughout the term. Take time to draft and revise now, and reap the benefits of a well-written course all semester.” I’ve found if I skip this step at the end of the semester I’ve forgotten much of the feedback I’ve received when I get around to preparing for the class again. Then I need to look at it all over again. But if I do my planning while it’s still fresh in my mind, I can make good headway on course planning for the next semester.

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