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This issue of CDTL Brief is the last of a two-part instalment featuring the teaching practices of faculty members who have won the Excellent Teacher Award (currently known as Annual Teaching Excellence Award) for three consecutive academic years (2001/2002–2004/2005).

October 2005, Vol. 8, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
“I Hear You”: Using Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching*
 
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate Former Associate Director, CDTL
 

Students' Evaluation of Teaching

This paper considers how formative and evaluative information obtained through student feedback (SF) can serve as a valuable guide to achieve desired learning outcomes in a Singapore Studies module SSD1203 "Real Estate Development and Investment Law" offered to students from various faculties across NUS.

Based on my experience of teaching the module to students from diverse backgrounds, this paper focuses on the importance of obtaining SF and responding timely to students' concerns to improve their learning experience.

Providing Avenues for SF

Teaching students from diverse backgrounds is challenging. As it was my first time teaching a Singapore Studies module to such a diverse cohort of students, it was important to put some mechanisms in place for students to provide regular and timely feedback. This way, I could respond to their feedback quickly and make appropriate changes to help them learn better. The following were issues I had to bear in mind when getting SF:

  • Finding the right time to obtain SF. It is important to obtain SF soon after the first class so that I can know students' first impressions, and how the pace, level and methods of instruction have been received.

  • Using a combination of avenues for obtaining SF. Students could provide feedback through the following semi-formal avenues: (a) short questionnaires/surveys administered during tutorials; (b) emails; (c) the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE); and (d) a class representative appointed as the go-between between students and me. The other informal avenues for SF include: (a) chatting with students; (b) speaking to individual students or groups randomly and to group representatives on a regular basis; as well as (c) encouraging students to slip notes under my door or into my pigeon hole. I am not averse to the idea of receiving anonymous SF; I would usually examine them carefully to see whether there were nuggets of truth.

  • Providing a 'safe' environment. It is important to let students know that nothing (well, almost nothing) they say will be held against them! Any number of SF mechanisms would be useless if students did not feel 'safe' to voice their concerns. From the outset, I make it clear to students that they should feel free to approach me. However, these were merely words. I demonstrated to students through my actions that I do indeed, take SF seriously.

Responding to SF

The following section outlines some changes made specifically in response to SF received in the course of teaching the module. Some changes were made in consultation with my co-teacher while others were done autonomously.

Types of tutorial questions

Based on my teaching experience, I had initially set fairly complex case studies for students to analyse during tutorials. However, after the first tutorial, SF indicated that students were having difficulties with the questions.

The general sentiments were:

I'm from the Arts and Social Sciences. I find this module very interesting and useful as it has given me more insight. .So far the only difficulty pertains to the tutorial questions. I don't really understand [them] and find it difficult to sieve through large amounts of materials to pinpoint the relevant information.

This alerted me to the difficulty students have in handling scenarios with complex legal issues. Tutorial questions were quickly reformulated to provide a little hand-holding in the form of structured questions at the beginning before students move on to answer the analytical questions on the case studies.

Answering techniques

We are students from Arts, Engineering, Computing etc. While the previous tutorial reinforced the concepts we learnt.it did not equip us with the techniques to answer legal questions.

This was a difficulty similar and related to the first one. Thus, I promptly decided to provide students with a bare-boned structure on the approach to legal analysis with a particular focus on the rationale behind the legal positions.

Collaborative/Peer learning opportunities and continual assessment methods

My original plan was that students would work in affinity groups prior to tutorials and then I would assess them based on their tutorial presentations. However, SF revealed that this approach was not feasible because students' time-tables differed widely. Therefore, I adopted the buzz group strategy where students would do some self-study prior to tutorials and then form buzz groups during tutorials to engage in collaborative/peer learning and discussion. The buzz group strategy created the following alternative situations for assessment that helped students in the learning process:

  • students' participation during discussion time (including the informally appointed sub-group leaders and scribes in each buzz group);

  • students' participation in activities between buzz groups (e.g. pitting up one group against another); and

  • students'/buzz groups' participation in pop quizzes.

Final assessment method

A typical assessment format in law modules is the case study/essay question. However, since the module focuses more on helping students understand the rationale within legal positions, it was decided that the examination CDTL Brief / October 2005, Page format would include a choice of short structured ('breadth') questions followed by case study ('depth') questions.

Webcasting lectures

I generally avoid webcasting lectures as I prefer 'real' time contact. However, upon receiving several requests through SF and bearing in mind that students came from various faculties across the campus, I relented to a few lecture webcasts.

Making the choice not to react

It is necessary to exercise discernment in responding to SF. Being too responsive to SF can cause students to perceive that they can 'bargain' with me. However, when I decide not to react to certain SF, I let students know my reasons. The following were some examples of SF I chose not to respond to:

  • Provide extracts of relevant readings. Students asked that I make copies of the readings available to them, but I did not want to 'spoon-feed' them. Instead, I reiterated on the importance of self-study and independent learning skills.

  • Remove mark allocation for IVLE participation. SF revealed that students did not agree with the 10% mark allocation for IVLE participation as many were not confident enough to express their views in a 'public' domain. However, this feature remained as I wanted to encourage students to learn actively and develop their confidence through IVLE participation.

  • Provide 'model' answers. There were numerous requests for 'model' answers to tutorial questions. However, I firmly refused to do so as I did not want to promote uniformity and rigidity in analysing and writing creative arguments.

Conclusion

All the efforts outlined above would require the teacher to put in extra time. In addition, I must be open to suggestions and be prepared to be told that not all is going well. Also, as someone who invites feedback, I must be prepared to respond to feedback.

This paper has outlined the importance of obtaining timely SF through various mechanisms. Some changes which I have made in response to SF are also discussed. It is crucial to exercise discernment when responding to certain SF. Also, it is always helpful to consult and discuss with a colleague if in doubt.

References

Braskamp, A.L; Brandenburg, D.C, & Ory, J.C. (1984). Evaluating Teaching Effectiveness: A Practical Guide. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Smith, R. (2001). 'Formative Evaluation and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning', in Knapper, C. & Cranton, P. (Eds.). Fresh Approaches to the Evaluation of Teaching: New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 88, Jossey Bass.


* This article has been adapted from Christudason, A. (2004). 'When to Move and When to Stay: Responding and Reacting to Student Feedback'. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (TLHE), 1-3 December, organised by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore. pp. 252-257.
 
 
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Learning-A Matter of Life and Death
   
Writing as Dialogue
   
"I Hear You": Using Student Feedback to Improve Your Teaching
   
Exploring the 'Maze' of Teaching
   
Good Teacher and Macroeconomics