Checking In

Feedback, Early and Often

How are your classes going so far? Are your students on track? By this point in the semester, students need some feedback on their progress. They, and we, need to know whether they’re learning what we want them to learn, so we can figure out what to adjust and they can improve their study strategies.

In the book How Learning Works (one of our favorite resources, and a fall CAT faculty reading group), Ambrose et al. (2010) explain that learning results from “goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback.” Effective feedback “(a) communicates to students where they are relative to the stated goals and what they need to do to improve and (b) provides this information to students when they can make the most use of it.” If feedback comes too late, it doesn’t help learners develop.

Hopefully your students have already submitted some work for grades, and seen their results, but grades aren’t the only (or necessarily  the best) form of feedback we can provide. To help you and your students get a clear picture of how they’re doing, here are 3 “temperature-taking” suggestions:

  1. Ask students how they’re doing: If you teach a relatively small class and/or your students are accustomed to discussion, the simplest strategy is just to ask them to reflect on their own learning. Remind them that the first few weeks were intended to work toward x and y goals/course objectives, and ask them how much progress they think they’ve made toward attaining them. Also let them know your assessment of their progress based on their grades, responses in class, and any other classwork/homework they’ve completed.
  2. Try a minute paper. A  quick writing exercise is a good option, since writing helps students to collect their thoughts, and you can review the responses after class. You might simply ask students to write for 1 minute—anonymously—in response to the question or prompt you provide. Ask a question or two that students should be able to respond to if they are keeping up with the class and grasping the material. Even if your class is large, you can read a sample of their responses and provide the whole class with feedback, pointing out how they did as a group, any trends you identified, what they should do in light of your findings, etc. A few carefully-worded (preferably higher-order) clicker questions could work too, especially if you give students a chance to discuss and make self-assessments.
  3. Give them a formative quiz—a quiz that doesn’t count toward their grade, one that lets them and you know how they’re doing, but doesn’t carry any penalties. Students could even grade their own quizzes and compare answers with their peers.

This feedback isn’t just important for students, of course—we need it, too. Next week we’ll share ideas for gathering more and earlier information on how our courses are going.