More about those feedback cards

Two weeks into the term and my experiment with instant feedback cards, they are beginning to have some effect on the shape of the course, and maybe even to give insights into how students are synthesising material in the different courses they take.

The two main courses I’m delivering this semester are a course on the theory and practice of social research and a longer course on nations, identity and power where students apply theory to cases from the region that this School studies. Many students on social sciences tracks choose to or need to take the social research course, while the course on nations, identity and power appeals to students with interests in politics and nationalism.

The overlap in students taking both these courses is a big help for remembering names,  and also gives me twice as many opportunities a week to think about how their learning is progressing.

After the first social research lecture, I realised the point that most students had found ‘least clear’ was the idea of anti-foundationalist thought. (Well they might, since anti-foundationalism doesn’t leave anything to grasp.) At the next lecture, I tried to provide more – one provocative (Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalist take on good and evil) and one probably less so (the interpretive way that Mark Bevir and R. A. W. Rhodes approach policy networks in political science).

The next day, I was lecturing to the Nations/Identity/Power class on ‘what makes the nation?’. This week’s focus was on approaches to the study of ethnicity: attempts to typologise features of ethnicity, versus constructivist accounts that problematise identity and group formation.

The most extreme example of constructivism I wanted to introduce was work on ethnicity by Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA. Brubaker, put simply, rejects the common-sense idea that researchers in ethnicity should be studying groups (his last theoretical book was even called Ethnicity Without Groups). Instead, we should be studying the practices and processes that make people consider they belong to groups. It’s all right for group members to believe that they belong to groups; researchers with their professional hats on should not.

But we all know groups exist. We know that we belong to groups. Don’t we?

I wanted to introduce this now so that students would begin to ask the question, even if they find Brubaker too counter-intuitive to agree with. It’s helpful as an intellectual exercise in taking nothing for granted (I gave an illustration of some of the bureaucratic, financial, legal, social, hospitality-related and linguistic practices that might operate to produce the ‘groupness’ of belonging to the collectivity ‘UCL students’). Because I know grasping anti-foundationalism has been an issue for some students in the other course, I added that, for those who are taking Theory and Practice of Social Research at the same time, Brubaker is an example of anti-foundationalist thought.

Which made me very pleased, after I’d collected the feedback cards from the ethnicity lecture, to find out someone had found ‘Brubaker’s anti-foundationalist ideas’ the clearest thing of all.

This may not be the same person who said they’d had trouble understanding anti-foundationalism in week 1. The cards are anonymous, I don’t take much account of handwriting, and I don’t use them as a way to track individual progress from week to week.

It’s still evidence that students are learning actively by applying their knowledge from one course to another, my teaching has had some intellectual coherence across courses, and that a difficult concept may be starting to sink in as students use it in different ways.

I could have found this out in a seminar if the discussion had gone in that direction (although, conscious that students don’t necessarily take both courses, I’d have been unlikely to lead it there myself). As it is, I’m able to observe this from the feedback cards.

The cards also work as a way for students to make brief ‘off-topic’ comments about classroom management or seminar structure (such as one thing that always trips me up: when and where is the best point to put out the sign-in sheet?). Someone took the opportunity to suggest a further primary source I might like to use as a case study in the nationalism course. I enjoy these, and I enjoy having had at least one moment of interaction with every person in a group 40-60 strong.

I just wish the institution where I’m using them had an easy way to recycle them (unlike my other institution, which recycles everything – apart from glass). The paper recycling points in our print rooms only accept white printer paper, so I have been throwing a shocking number of plain white cards away.

Time to plan a simulation that will take up a lot of place cards, maybe?

Instant student feedback and the power of social media

A post at The Teaching Tom Tom about using Twitter and blogging as professional development tools has reminded me to follow up on my own recent post about how social media has helped me to change my own teaching practice.

One of my priorities this year is to help students get more from my lectures. This means finding strategies to slow the pace and provide space for reflection within the lecture, and finding ways to gauge how students are understanding the material well before the coursework and marking stage.

This post is about the second issue: rapid feedback techniques I have begun using thanks to social media.

The department where I was teaching last year introduced informal mid-semester student feedback as well as the formal end-of-semester student evaluations. As a new teacher, I also had a more experienced colleague visit one of my classes for a teaching observation.

But how can I get student feedback in time for it to have an instant impact, before students have spent weeks feeling lost and not telling anybody? Even halfway through the unit feels like too late, when I know that I could have tried to correct the problems if only I’d known about them.

A blog post by Liz Gloyn, a classicist at Birmingham, caught my attention when she re-promoted it a month or two ago. Liz had been reading Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen D Broomfield and trying to implement some of his tools, including a reflective teaching log. Broomfield also introduces an instant feedback exercise called the Critical Incident Questionnaire, which Liz has been thinking of adopting:

students anonymously fill this out at the end of the last class of each week, noting what they felt most engaged with in class over the past week, what they felt most distanced from, what action they found most affirming, what action they found most puzzling, and what about class surprised them the most. At the start of the next week, the teacher reports back on the responses and the trends they illustrated, and opens discussion about any serious issues that have turned up as group issues.

I’ve done something similiar with this in the past with an activity called the One Minute Paper, where at the end of each class students write on a notecard the clearest and muddiest point covered in class that day. That’s given me some great insight into content issues my students face, but it’s less helpful for identifying other problems with my teaching in the way Brookfield suggests the CIQ could. I’m very tempted to experiment with something along these lines next time I teach, in place of the One Minute Paper, and see what difference it makes.

Both these ideas could solve my speed-of-feedback problem. For my first venture into instant feedback, I’ve decided to borrow the one-minute-paper technique and apply it to the lectures in the two main units  I’m teaching these semester. Both are theoretically focused, making the early weeks essential scaffolding for material later on: a student who is confused at this stage and gets disengaged will find it hard to recover.

At the end of both introductory lectures this week, I’ve handed out note cards and asked students to write bullet points saying what they found the clearest and least clear points in the lecture. At the moment I still have the energy to type them up (which is helpful for my teaching log and may even help when I revise my teaching dossier), open the document where I keep early notes for the next lecture and add thoughts about what I need to go over in a different way.

I can tell, for instance, that students feel my explanation of ontology was particularly successful (and that the most memorable illustration I used was a discussion of wizard and Muggle ontologies in Harry Potter) but that more examples of anti-foundationalist thought would have helped them grasp the difference between anti-foundationalism and foundationalism.

Just by doing this, I hope I also make myself seem responsive approachable, interested in student progress, and prepared to help when students feel confused.

(The Critical Incident Questionnaire strikes me as more useful for seminars: I may give it a try in a different unit next semester where a previous colleague has introduced many different student discussion activities into the module and I’d like some feedback on what works. One step at a time.)

I could have come across all these ideas without social media by studying teaching and learning practice or through mentoring. The power of social media, at least for an informationvore, is that I encounter these ideas in semi-downtime. Opening a Twitter or Google Reader session is a signal that I’m going to spend the next half an hour thinking in a creative and relaxed way, but I don’t know what I will be made to think about.

It could be how a pet cat has made the UK government look silly, what was wrong with the plotting of female characters in the finale of Doctor Who or carrying out political science fieldwork in conflict zones (all blog posts that have stuck in my mind that I’ve read in the last 24 hours). I’m more likely to retain and digest an idea if I feel that I’ve come across it voluntarily, in time I construct as not-work.

I’ve already passed this technique on to a colleague in my department, although I hope she’s prepared for how many packs of notecards she’ll get through. People I don’t know may take up the idea from my post or Liz’s if they find it through Twitter, Facebook, bookmarking or old-fashioned web search. At this early stage, I’d recommend it to anyone. Unless you are a tree.