Today’s post develops the theme of Monday’s resource on evaluating teaching and learning and seeks to answer questions such as ‘How can I know that my students are learning what I want them to learn?’ and ‘What is the best way of teaching substantive content to this year’s students?’
These questions are worth asking because we all have habits in our teaching. We have ways of explaining particular ideas, stories we can tell that demonstrate the processes and events that we teach students about. A good question to ask ourselves, though, is whether these habits work in communicating ideas effectively to students. Are we teaching based on what makes sense to us, rather than to them? And/or are we teaching some students effectively, but not others?
Considerations of this sort prompt reflection on the diversity of learning styles and responses to teaching that different groups of students have. And that diversity in turn means that any review of our teaching, and the best way of answering the questions at the top of this post, is best done through the adoption of various types of formative evaluation, of which there are several examples in common use at LSE.
Teaching observation is commonly used at LSE, and a good moment for it to happen may be around the time of the Michaelmas Term TQARO student survey of class teaching, the results of which will offer a chance to review how your students feel things are going, and enable you to reflect on any changes you might make in Lent Term. The LSE100 course, for instance, uses peer observation by mentors. Teaching fellows observe all GTAs each term, and often GTAs observe fellows in return. The ‘collegial’ nature of these observations lends itself to productive discussions about how LSE100 content can be framed for particular groups of students..
Naturally occurring feedback
Naturally occurring feedback arises in the ways that students behave and perform on your course. While their behaviour will reflect a range of influences, one of these will be the guidance and teaching that you offer.
There are three main kinds of natural feedback that teachers can review. The first is student behaviour around their study. This includes attendance, submission of coursework, attending office hours, punctuality, etc., and is the kind of information often captured in the termly summary section of LSE for You. Noting these elements will tell you which students are studying well and which may be struggling or need prompting. This, in turn, can guide you in looking into why these behaviours are being adopted.
To do this, a second kind of behaviour can be observed: that which students adopt during teaching. This can include noting those who come prepared for class, what questions they ask, where their attention runs out, what mistakes they make and how they respond to the coursework tasks and feedback. Reviewing the information you gather will allow you to make inferences about their learning and where they’ve succeeded, or not, in acquiring the substantive knowledge of the course. Knowing this can inform you of what seems to work for a particular group and what seems to be less effective.
The final, and richest, source of natural feedback is student behaviour in their coursework. Rather than simply looking for whether they submit the work, this approach requires seeking information about how successfully students complete disciplinary tasks, and thus how they demonstrate the kinds of reasoning associated with your discipline. As with watching them in lectures and classes, judging students’ progress through their coursework can provide the most direct feedback you can get about their learning. To make the most of that opportunity, you might, for instance, alongside giving them a grade and feedback, think about how accurately what they have written reflects what you’ve told them or set them to read or work out. That way, each set of coursework submitted becomes evidence for the appropriateness of what you are doing with the group. If the students’ coursework is what you were hoping for, then you have confirmation that your approach holds with this particular group.
Minute papers are very short questionnaires that take a minute to complete. They usually contain only two or three questions on either substantive content or students’ experiences in class.
With the questions on substantive content, you can gather feedback in the same way as looking at student coursework for how well the students seem to be learning.
With those on students’ experiences in class, you are aiming to get feedback on what sorts of teaching approaches work best for the students’ learning. Useful questions for eliciting this kind of information are ‘Which activities used so far did you get most out of? Why was this?’ or ‘What class tasks have helped you learn best?’
An important aspect of any ‘minute paper evaluation’ is to tell students how you will act on what they’ve told you, and then obviously follow through on the action. This open approach may well lead to the kind of dialogue about studying your discipline through which you can make a real difference to the students’ understanding and approach to their study.
With thanks to Dr Neil McLean in LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre for contributing this post.