Early Student Feedback — Paul Kates

Feedback from students doesn’t have to wait until the time of end-of-term course clipboard and arrowevaluations. Getting feedback early and often in a course allows you to build on what’s working and make changes towards what can work better, all in time to have an impact on your students.

Asking students at the start of the term about their expectations for the course, the lectures, the textbook even their own work habits can give you an insight into why your students are in your course and let you address expectations immediately should they be out-of-line with the way the course is going to be run.

Eric Mazur in his book Peer Instruction gives a start-of-term “Introductory Questionnaire” to his Physics class where he asks

  • What do you hope to learn from this course?
  • What do you hope to do with this new knowledge?
  • What do you expect the lectures to do for you?
  • What do you expect the book to do for you?
  • How many hours do you think it will take to learn all you need to know from this course? Include everything: lectures, homework, etc.

(This and the following set of questions are attributed to Prof James Sethian, Department of Mathematics, University of California at Berkeley.)

With the answers in hand he addresses each of the questions in class – supporting and encouraging his students and expanding on student answers with his own goals for the class:

I want the material we cover to be useful to you beyond the exam. I want you to become good critical and analytical thinkers, able to tackle not just familiar problems but also unknown new problems or questions. Not only to plug numbers into equations but able to develop new models and theories, to make qualified assumptions, and then use those models and assumptions to break new ground in science and technology.

He also has the opportunity to address student expectations, realigning and influencing those expectations about the lectures, text and workload.

He gives a sample reply to all the questions above (ask me for a copy), but here I’ll only quote the answer to the question
What do you expect the lectures to do for you?

There were many very thoughtful responses to this question, but I did encounter a number of misunderstandings about the lectures that I should address to avoid falling short of your expectations. The most serious misconception I encountered is that the lectures will present and explain the fundamental concepts, while the book will clarify the ideas presented in the lecture. This is not what is going to happen. You will be reading the material before coming to class. The book will introduce the basic terminology and definitions, hopefully raise some questions, perhaps even confuse you a little (“to wonder is to begin to understand”). The lectures are intended to challenge your thinking and thereby help you assess your understanding of the concepts you read about, to further and deepen your understanding of these concepts, to stimulate and inspire you, and to show you how things “fit together.” The book will then provide further reference. In addition it will be a source for questions and problems.

Some of you expect to practice problem-solving in lecture, but problem-solving is not the main focus of this class. I want you to understand things, not just be able to “plug and chug.” This is clearly reflected in the way you will be tested – take a good look at the exams in the back of the syllabus. Close to half of the questions on each exam are not the traditional, quantitative problems you may have seen before. The solutions to many of these don’t involve even a single equation. Rest assured, the sections and homework assignments will offer ample opportunity to sharpen your traditional problem-solving skills. The lectures are meant to stimulate your thinking, to further your basic understanding. I guarantee that a better understanding of the concepts will improve your problem-solving abilities, whereas the reverse is not necessarily true. Here is what I think of some other answers given: …

After a month Prof. Mazur uses the following questionnaire to gauge how students are settling in to the course. This is another early opportunity to address concerns, misunderstandings and expectations.

  • What do you love about this class?
  • What do you hate about this class?
  • If you were teaching this class, what would you do?
  • If you could change one thing about this class, what would it be?

If you have your own in-course questionnaire and want to share it I’d be happy to use it along with any comments you care to include in a follow-up post.

Further readings:

Paul Kates

Paul Kates

Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) Liaison to the Faculty of Mathematics (pkates@uwaterloo.ca)

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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