Asking Students About Learning

Gathering Feedback on Learning

If we think about teaching as an inquiry-driven process, our curiosity about our students, and about learning, can lead us to improve our practice. Among many fascinating questions we can pose, this one is essential: How do I know whether my students are learning what I intend for them to learn?

Sometimes it’s difficult to know, especially if students’ role in a course is mostly to pay what sociologist Jay R. Howard calls “civil attention” during class and then take exams. In the time between those exams—in other words, throughout the majority of the course—neither the instructor nor the students have any feedback about whether students are making progress toward the learning goals. The exam will be the first opportunity to find out.

Even when class sessions feature some traditional discussions, where just a few students serve as what Howard calls “talkers” and the majority are actually “non-talkers” relying on the talkers to make it appear as though a robust conversation is happening, we can’t get an accurate sense of whether students are doing the learning we intend for them to do, or how the learning experience is going for them.

This is why it’s essential we adopt or develop methods for both the students and us to get feedback on whether students are making appropriate progress. And if they’re not, what might help them learn what we intend for them to learn?

There are many ways to take a snapshot of how students are doing in a course. Formative assessments—whether they are activities, assignments, reflections, quizzes, or something else—can give us a sense of their progress toward the learning goals: what they are doing well and should continue, and what they need to work on or adjust. (By this point of the semester, students should already have formative feedback on their work and an accurate sense of their progress in the course.)

It’s useful for students to be able to communicate with us in other ways, too: We can ask them to write about how the course is going, or to take a survey on which they can provide quantitative, qualitative, or both types of feedback on our teaching. Samples are available here and here. You can use a template or create and distribute your own survey during or outside of class time, using Canvas, Qualtrics, or another survey app. We’ve developed a sample midterm evaluation that you can import into Canvas, and instructions are available here.

Since midterm surveys give us vital information on students’ experience of our teaching, in time to act upon it, they often improve end-of-semester evaluations as well. But there are two important provisos: First, students must be confident that the feedback process is safe and anonymous, so that their honesty will not negatively affect your relationship or their grade. Second, it’s essential that you follow up with students, thanking them for their feedback and outlining how you’ll use it: accommodating reasonable, useful suggestions and explaining why others aren’t feasible this semester.

If you’d like support, we’re happy to help you design a method of collecting feedback that works well for your course. We can also help you interpret the results, consider adjustments you’d like to make, and plan how you will discuss the feedback with students. Just send us an email at, and we’ll be at your service. We look forward to working with you!


Teaching with OneNote Class Notebook

Wednesday, March 22nd | 1:00 – 2:30 p.m. | Zimmerman Instruction Room, Strozier Library, Room 107A

The CAT and ODL will present a hands-on skillshop on using the OneNote Class Notebook in your classrooms. You will experience the system as a student, and then have the opportunity to set it up for use as a teacher with live technical help available from the ODL team. Learn how this system helps with student learning, note-taking, formative assessment, practice & feedback, and even with solving math problems! While it is not a replacement for Canvas or graded assignments, it provides a streamlined way of doing in-class activities—individual and group. Learn about the tools and options available, get your questions answered, and potentially be a part of a new learning community. Both pedagogical and technological aspects will be covered.

Seats are limited, so reserve your spot now. Anyone who teaches is welcome to attend.