Nearly all colleges and universities solicit student feedback through a formal evaluation process at the end of a course. The value of that feedback varies, and often, the activity seems more like a standardized exercise than a rigorous evaluation.
What if a professor wanted deep, genuine feedback that students had thought through carefully? How would they solicit that feedback and what would they do with it?
Chuck Tryon, Professor of English at Fayetteville State University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the top learnings that came from transparently asking his students how they would re-design his course.
Why Go Beyond Traditional Student Evaluations?
“There were probably two or three conversations,” Chuck said.
The first took place with a long-time friend, a professor at a different university, about the fact that most students probably aren’t going to graduate school and certainly not in English.
“We were talking about composition writers,” Chuck explained. “I wanted to create assignments that would prepare them for workplace settings while retaining the humanities emphasis that I have as a long-time English professor.”
Putting all these pieces together, Chuck began thinking about what it would look like for students to write a traditional proposal paper. He thought, “Well, why not have them give feedback on my course in this format?” It would help learners understand their own educations better and in some sense take a little bit of extra responsibility for them.
“The second factor,” Chuck told us, “is that there are so many problems with course evaluations.”
This new approach just felt like a good way for him to get more productive feedback but also give the students something interesting to write about.
The Most Surprising Student Feedback
“When I went to college,” Chuck said, “almost all of our classes were very lecture-based with some teacher-led discussion. It’s taken me a long time to learn the lesson of creating more interactive and engaging assignments.”
Students who are just sitting and being lectured to are going to default to cell phones, doodling, and whatever else they might do. Chuck found that pushing them to be more active was productive.
“I learned about tools like Kahoot that a lot of students really enjoyed using in high school,” Chuck also told us, “and have been able to introduce those to the classroom. One other thing that I learned was that many students don’t feel fully prepared for college life. Some of that, I think, is what a lot of people now call adulting, like managing finances and all of those sorts of things.”
Specific to English courses, Chuck also discovered that students felt comfortable with the MLA format but found the sudden adjustment to APA quite difficult. Learners felt like they needed more drills and skills activities related to that.
How to Solicit and Implement In-depth Student Feedback
“When I introduced this assignment,” Chuck told us, “I always introduce it with a joke. I would say, ‘The implied thesis for this assignment is “Dr. Tryon, we love your course, but …”
That helps ease the burden since students don’t feel like they are criticizing you. Besides, the project happens near the end of the semester, so students have had time to build trust based on feedback from other assignments and in-class conversation.
“The other thing that I do is I have them present their ideas in class,” Chuck said. “That makes it more conversational, and they begin to see that other classmates might have similar reactions.”
Many students have told Chuck that it seems by the end of the semester, he tends to lose some steam, and they offer suggestions for what he could do outside the lecture format. We asked him how he received that kind of feedback and internalized it in order to make changes.
“I go in, week two, week three,” Chuck said. “I have all these interactive ideas and then by Week Six or Seven, I’m like, ‘I’ve done this. I’ve done that. They probably don’t want to do another interactive assignment.”
But having fairly consistent activities that require them, in some cases, to get up and move around the classroom or to get into groups — anything that breaks up the monotony of the 50 or 75-minute lecture — is really valuable.
“One thing I try to do every semester,” Chuck said, “is to go back, look at my syllabus and figure out where I can preemptively fill in an interactive activity before the semester starts so that when I get to Week 13, I’m not trying to put that together.”
Next-Steps Advice for Creating a Student Feedback Loop
“There are a lot of things that institutions can do,” Chuck told us, “especially the introductory level courses.”
Those courses are the ones that tell the student the story of the university and let them know what it’s going to be like to attend that university. Paying careful attention when students are universally complaining about a course can help universities make strategic curricular decisions.
“One thing I love about Fayetteville State is that senior faculty are very frequently teaching the 100 level courses,” Chuck said. “We’re the ones … that are going to be consistently at the university.”
This approach can help build long-term relationships with students plus give them a sense of the school’s history, scope, and expectations.
“I think just listening is the best thing you can do,’ Chuck said.
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