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.


3 thoughts on “Instant student feedback and the power of social media

  1. I’m so glad you gave it a go and are finding it useful! The ‘one step at a time’ idea is absolutely crucial too – I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to try CIQs unless I’d been doing one minute papers for as long as I have.

    I should note that the first person who introduced me to the one minute paper said they’d taken it from Cross and D’Angelo, which I’ve never looked at but really should…

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