Evaluating and Improving your Teaching II

In an earlier post I suggested how researchers who teach can use reflection as a source of information about improving teaching. Here I’m going to say a little bit about how teachers might gather feedback from other sources in order to supplement their own reflections and gain further insight into where their teaching is successful and where there might be room for improvement.

Gaining feedback from colleagues

The simplest form of getting feedback and improving your teaching with the aid of colleagues is to simply have informal discussions about teaching with them. The most appropriate person for such discussion will depend on what you want from the conversation. More experienced teachers in your department might be able to offer insights into particular teaching and learning issues that you’re facing – they may have struggled with similar issues themselves and know, for instance, that first year students in your discipline always struggle with a particular idea and it’s not just the way you’re trying to teach it. Other less experienced teachers might provide a useful sounding board for issues that more experienced colleagues are less likely to be grappling with. For instance, you may want advice on how to assert your authority as a junior member of staff, an area that more senior colleagues may not have insight into. Also, do not underestimate the advice and insight that can be offered by colleagues who are not from your discipline. Colleagues from other disciplines are often more able to focus on the process of teaching rather than the content (which can distract people who know your discipline well). All disciplines have ways of teaching particular skills and topics which have evolved over time and become the standard way of approaching things. While people from your own discipline can be useful in introducing you to these ideas, they are often not so useful when those established ways of teaching do not appear to be working as effectively as they might. Colleagues from other disciplines are more likely to be able to offer new possibilities based on their own experience, which might provide you with new ideas to try out.

Teaching observations are often extremely useful insights into teaching, whether you are observing the teaching of someone else or having your own teaching observed. It can be intimidating at first to have someone observe you, but most teachers tend to forget that they are being observed after the first few minutes, and the vast majority report that it is an exceptionally useful experience. It is also worth remembering that observations of this kind are not intended to be judgemental but should be developmental in nature – they are not about assessing competence but are intended to identify possible areas for further development.

When planning an observation, it is important to be clear about what you wish to gain from the experience because that will determine who you wish to observe/be observed by, and what the observer ought to be looking for. Potential observation partners might include a mentor or other experienced member of your own department, an experienced teacher from another discipline (especially if you’d like them to focus on the process of teaching rather than the content), or another junior academic or early career researcher.

Getting Feedback from Students

There are a variety of ways in which feedback might be gained from students, but the aim of the exercise ought to be to try to understand what is going on from the students’ perspective. For this reason, you should consider carefully what you would like your students to give you feedback on, but you should also try to put yourself in their shoes and consider what they might like to give you feedback on too. Possibilities for gaining student feedback include:

  • Short ‘One Minute Papers’ which tend to be used most commonly in lectures and ask students to identify things like the most important thing they learned from the lecture, what three questions they still have, or what remains unclear to them. Such brief questionnaires allow lecturers to identify misconceptions or gaps in the lecture and also allow them to be rectified in subsequent lectures or tutorials. This not only allows the lecturer to improve the lecture for the next cohort, but allows him/her to rectify problems for the current group of students.
  • The ‘Critical Incident Questionnaire’ designed by Stephen Brookfield asks students to identify key moments in a class, and focuses on process as well as the content of the session. It therefore contains questions like “At what moment did you feel most engaged with what was happening in class?” and “What action that anyone took (student or teacher) did you find most helpful?” The full questionnaire can be found at: http://stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Critical_Incident_Questionnaire_files/CIQ.pdf
  • Interviews with groups or individual students allow the teacher to get a fuller picture of what students think and to clarify any issues that arise.
  • Give students a coloured post-it note to comment on an aspect of the session which they liked, and a different colour to highlight an aspect of the session which they didn’t.  Ask students to stick these on a board as they leave to give you immediate feedback at the end of a class.
  • Longer questionnaires could also provide a useful insight into what a large group of students think. It is often difficult to get the right kind of information from this type of questionnaire although the Approaches to Learning Inventory and Course Experience Questionnaire, both of which are introduced in Paul Ramsden’s Learning to Teach in Higher Education, are potentially more productive. Be aware that, if you choose to issue your questionnaire on-line, you are likely to get a lower response rate than if you set aside five minutes at the end of one of your teaching sessions and ask students to complete a paper version before they leave the room.
  • Set up an on-line forum where students can post questions or comments throughout the course. It may be that some students are more willing to comment on the aspects of teaching that they do or don’t find helpful on-line than they are in class. You can then respond (perhaps explaining your rationale for certain approaches or the importance of tasks that students tend not to enjoy) outside of precious class time.

The different approaches to gaining student feedback will clearly give you different types of information, but they will also encourage students to reflect on the class and consider their own learning which may be helpful to them as well as to you.

If you do gain feedback from students mid-way through a course, you should consider making it clear to them how you have acted on their feedback. This will make it more likely that they will respond to further requests for feedback on your teaching.

You can also use less formal means to gain feedback from students about how your teaching is going. In addition to observing body language and student behaviour in class, you can also gain some feedback on your teaching from other elements of the course that you may be involved in. For instance, if you have some responsibility for student assessment, noting student responses can give you some indication of common misconceptions or misunderstandings that your students hold and allow you to address these in your teaching. You may find that many of your students have misunderstood a particular term or concept, or that several of them have interpreted a question in a way that you did not anticipate. You can then be sure to adjust your teaching of the subject in subsequent sessions.

Similarly, if you hold office hours and/or encourage your students to collect marked assignments from you, it is possible to use this as an opportunity to speak to them more generally about how they are finding the course. You will often find that such one-to-one, informal discussions allow you to gain a significant amount of insight into student behaviour and therefore tailor your teaching to cater for the range of different students in your class.

Finding ways to evaluate your teaching for yourself, whether it is via reflection or through feedback from colleagues or students, is a good way to supplement the more formal evaluation mechanisms that most Universities have in place to monitor student satisfaction. Having established methods for getting feedback on your teaching can demonstrate, both to potential employers, and to the students that you teach, that you take teaching seriously and are keen to do the best job that you can – and that can go a long way to giving the impression that you are a good teacher, as well as a good researcher.

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