Gathering and learning from student feedback has become an integral part of every course I teach. In addition to the data culled through end-of-course evaluations administered by the university registrar, I also employ a variety of classroom assessment techniques that allow me to gauge the success of particular assignments or exercises from the perspective of my students. The central value to these exercises is that they allow me to re-calibrate my teaching mid-semester rather than waiting to get the evaluation report after the end of the term when it is too late to improve or change anything.
The first example comes from my fall 2012 Problem of God course. My personal teaching development goal for this semester was to hone my own techniques for mentoring student writing. With this goal in mind, I met with one of the directors of Georgetown’s writing program and brainstormed with her about how to improve my students’ writing skills overall, not just their performance on an individual essay assignment. I decided to engage my students in a peer review exercise. I had already set aside one day in the syllabus as a writing workshop day, and I had scaffolded their final paper assignment such that a first draft of the paper was due the day of the workshop. (They had already submitted a paper proposal and annotated bibliography a couple of weeks earlier.) On the day of the writing workshop, I asked each student, working with a partner, to identify his or her partner’s thesis, the strengths and weaknesses of the introductory paragraph, and finally, to “reverse outline” the partner’s paper in order to see how the organization of the paper in reality matched up with the author’s intended structure.
After the writing workshop time, I asked students to respond to 3 questions to help me get a sense of the effectiveness of the partner exercise: (1) In what ways was the writing workshop helpful? (2) What could be done to improve this exercise? (3) Would you recommend using this exercise in future class I teach? I have chosen 4 representative responses that capture the general sentiments and most useful feedback from the 40-student class. On the whole, students were pleased with the exercise, found the feedback they received from their peers useful, and would’ve liked to have had more opportunities for this sort of work. One weakness of the exercise, however, was that some students with stronger writing skills found the workshop less beneficial if they were paired with partners with significantly weaker writing skills. I would argue that the stronger students likely benefitted from the process of giving feedback even if they did not receive particularly helpful feedback from their partners. Nevertheless, this was valuable feedback to get that I had not taken into account when planning the exercise.
In the future, I will continue to make time for a writing workshop in class, but I would likely breakdown the activities into two workshop days because, as some students pointed out, the exercise was a bit too ambitious for a 50-minute class period. I would also consider asking students to work in trios instead of pairs to offset potential imbalances (and therefore lack of mutually beneficial feedback) that resulted from students with asymmetrical writing skills partnering up.
The second example comes from the Women & Religion course I taught in the spring of 2013. Just before spring break, I asked students (1) what is going well for you in this course?, and (2) what could be changed to improve your learning? Their written responses were given anonymously. I have chosen 4 responses from the class of 35 that were either representative of a large number of student opinions or that were most helpful to me as I thought about ways to improve the course. As the responses to question 1 demonstrate, my students were pleased with how the course was going on the whole, and they were finding the class structure and style both engaging and effective. However, they had some useful feedback to offer regarding what could be done to improve their learning. For example, many students had liked the questions I had distributed to accompany a particularly difficult reading earlier in the semester, and they asked that reading guides be provided more often. Some students also appreciated the “recap” of the previous class with which I always opened a new session and asked that this section of class be expanded. These two requests were easy enough to accommodate in the remainder of the term. A number of students suggested finding ways to incorporate more multimedia into the class. Fortunately, this had already been part of my plan for the second half of the semester–the course focus was shifting to ritual at that point, which made bringing in short video and song clips a natural fit–but the feedback response gave me an opportunity to share that plan with my students. An important aspect of this exercise was that after spring break, I took a few minutes out of class time to respond to the feedback I had gathered, which demonstrated to students them I had listened to their opinions and also gave them a chance to learn what their classmates were thinking (e.g., some responses asked for more small group time, others asked for less).
One of the more challenging responses I received (from Student D on the pdf linked above) was that this student would’ve liked to have seen more diversity among the feminist theologians considered in the early weeks of the course. On the one hand, I appreciated this honest feedback as learning from diverse voices is something I value highly as well. On the other hand, when designing the course I had made an effort not to set apart the “diverse voices” as an “Other” category that should to be studied separately from many of the white, Euro-American feminist theologians we were considering. Thus, instead of having one class period devoted to womanist theology and another devoted to mujerista theology, we read an excerpt from Jacqueline Grant’s White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus on the day focused on Christology, and we read a chapter from Michelle Maldonado Gonzalez’s Created in God’s Image on the day focused on Trinitarian theology. All of this is not to say that the student was wrong in his or her assessment. Rather, what I learned was that I need to make the structure of the course more transparent to students while also remaining mindful of voices that may be being left out or undervalued in my approach.
Feedback from student evaluations administered at the end of a semester have also proven to be a helpful tool as I have continued to refine my teaching methods and course design choices. Below I have included the full evaluations for the 5 courses I have taught at Georgetown. The evaluations demonstrate that the vast majority of my students have found my courses engaging, intellectually stimulating, and a safe space for discussion of difficult matters. They also suggest that the readings and conversations in my classes have prompted students to reflect on their own religious values and the reasoning behind their beliefs. Additionally, the evaluations have given me insight into the assignments and readings my students have found most interesting and valuable and why my teaching choices “worked” (or in a minority of cases, did not “work”) for them. One challenge I plan to tackle based on the feedback from my most recent course is finding ways to ensure students are doing the readings outside of class so that we can make the most of the face-to-face time in class.
Problem of God – Fall 2012 – Course Evaluation
(Included a refined blogging process and the final writing assignment was scaffolded over the last month of class)
Problem of God Section 07 – Fall 2011 – Course Evaluation
(Included collaborative learning project in addition to the final paper)
Problem of God Section 08 – Fall 2011 – Course Evaluation
(Included a collaborative learning project in addition to the final paper)