Creating Student Feedback Loops at Harold Washington College

Students can struggle to understand material presented in class. Those who fall the farthest behind are typically the most reluctant to ask questions.

But when the same students get tutoring, they often fearlessly ask questions and easily grasp the subject matter. So how can a classroom be more like a tutoring session?

Shana Cooper, English Instructor at Harold Washington College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about how seeing firsthand how students were struggling during tutoring sessions helped her redesign her own assignments.

How Tutoring Helps Remake a Classroom

Each year, Shana gives a compare/contrast essay assignment to her English 101 classes.

“They hate it,” she told us. “They hate me for assigning it. It’s a pretty big jump from your standard 102 write-a-narrative-essay stuff, so I usually make it the mid-term.”

It’s a hefty assignment, and they get the most out of it if they come to tutoring. If they’re not coming to tutoring, it’s really difficult for them. The difference can be dramatic.

“One student I worked with was really struggling with it,” Shana said. “She was from Columbia, and she didn’t have a great sense of American politics, and so we had looked at some articles on gun control.”

Although confused by the rhetoric, the student kept trying to figure it out on her own.

Shana worked with this student, showing her a scaffolding approach. “I would say, ‘Here’s a word. What does this one make you think of?”

Together, Shana and her student went through the articles word by word. As the student picked up more and more, Shana had her take the lead, asking what she thought about each passage until they had comments and annotations on the rhetoric of both articles.

“I said, ‘So, let’s look at the difference,” Shana said, “and she saw right away what she needed to do.”

Shana observed the same patterns repeated in other students who came for tutoring so she started using their work on the Smartboard as examples in class. After that, other students wanted to come for tutoring.

“The paper went really, really well for those who came in,” Shana told us. “For those who didn’t, it was just sort of this amorphous assignment.”

How Student Feedback Helped Redesign the Course

“I’ve been tutoring for 21 years, and I’ve been teaching here five years,” Shana said, “It really became clear that we needed to do a lot more hands on stuff, so my classes are extremely collaborative.”

Shana admitted she doesn’t like the textbooks she’s assigned to work with so she creates her own documents or links to articles that can serve as source material. She works together with students from there.

“I come down in the sense of ‘Okay, we’re both first seeing this at the same time, and so let’s look at this together. Here’s how that I would look at this,” Shana said.

Once the students see somebody doing it just like they would in a tutoring session, their guard comes down. They understand what it’s supposed to look like when they engage with material.

Recreating Tutoring in a Core Session

“I am a high maintenance learner myself,” Shana told us, “and didn’t do well in high school for a lot of it because I didn’t ask questions. I was afraid to ask questions.”

She’s discovered that students who are afraid of questions in class have no trouble when they’re working in a one-on-one session.

“I don’t want it to be so strict that it’s inaccessible to them,” Shana said. “I felt my own education at some places was inaccessible to me because I had a stigma about asking questions out loud.”

Some students at Harold Washington College come with learning challenges or accents that make them afraid to speak up. Working in clusters or doing hands-on activities breaks up the feeling of interrupting a large, quiet group by asking a question, and it lets Shana check in with them individually.

Next-Steps Advice for Creating Student Feedback Loops

If the faculty saw some tutoring sessions, teachers could observe for themselves the transformative nature of it. It could lead them to ask,“What can I do in my classes?” And then, they would create their own ways to use the concepts.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Shana Cooper from Harold Washington College. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.