Improve Your Teaching and Your Students’ Learning

You can only tell whether your teaching is improving if you can be sure of what your students are learning.
By William M. Timpson

In my two decades of work on postsecondary instruction, I have been constantly reminded of areas where we as instructors could improve teaching and deepen student learning: how we could move beyond content transmission; how we could benefit more from the published literature on instructional effectiveness, improvement, and innovation; how we could tap into more collegial support and assistance; how we could challenge students to do more to articulate their needs and preferences; and how, then, we could share more of what we learn through the scholarship of teaching.

Yet I see very few campuses that have professional development programs that can make a real difference at the classroom level. Moreover, it is the rare campus leader who has the background or vision to push much beyond the surface of instructional effectiveness and focus on student learning. My professional development efforts at three research universities and my scholarly work on postsecondary instructional improvement and innovation have taught me, however, that instructors can take steps to improve teaching and learning even on campuses that offer little support for such work.

Soliciting Student Feedback

In several publications, I have described the importance of feedback to student learning as well as our own teaching. A book I recently co-authored with Sue Doe, Concepts and Choices for Teaching: Meeting the Challenges in Higher Education, describes the range of instructional options that we have and how each approach is strengthened by feedback. In particular, I have explored the role of feedback in the performing arts, where directors, choreographers, and performers are engaged in a continuous process of communication, feedback, exploration, and improvement. (See my book Teaching and Performing, co-authored with colleague Suzanne Burgoyne.)

In my own classes, I routinely conduct a midsemester student feedback session to identify problems while there is still time to address them. I usually take about thirty minutes to reflect on what has happened to date, both positive and negative, and consider possible areas for improvement.

Using the standard course survey gives students practice with the form that will be used at the end of semester, a practice that is recommended by psychometricians as a way to increase “rater reliability.” I ask every student to complete the form individually and to list three aspects of the course that they appreciate and three concerns that they have. I also insist that they link any concerns to concrete recommendations for improvement.

After ten minutes or so, I invite them to join me in a full class discussion of some of these items. I will ask a student to note an aspect of the course that he or she appreciates and then ask the student to explain why he or she appreciates it. My intent is to encourage students to explain their reasoning in ways that others can understand. I then ask everyone to indicate his or her level of agreement on the scoring sheet using a scale that ranges from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” I ask for a show of hands for each of these responses so that I can better gauge the experience of the entire class and, if necessary, explore any disagreements further, then and there.

For example, in a recent graduate class on classrooms and communication, one student noted how she appreciated the written feedback I had been giving her. When polled, everyone else agreed. In turn, I said that I appreciated hearing this since I always wonder whether students really value the comments that I write and whether the time I take to write comments is worth the effort.

When I next turn to student concerns, I insist that students offer concrete recommendations, and we repeat the public polling and discussion. A few students who were enrolled in both of my classes this spring mentioned that many of the short reflection papers were due in the same week. One student asked if these could be staggered. The other two students who were in both classes supported this request. I then polled the rest of the class. For them, it was not an issue. For me, it was a reasonable accommodation that supported my desire for high-quality reports. We decided that students who had both classes could turn in their papers one week later without penalty.

In nearly twenty years of using the midsemester student feedback process, I have seen no downside. Students value the time taken to affirm what is working, identify concerns, and consider improvements. We often talk about rights, responsibilities, and the inherently shared nature of learning. Everyone appreciates the opportunity to make improvements before the semester ends. Students appreciate being asked, heard, valued, and included. In an earlier book, Teaching and Learning Peace, I also made the case for student participation in classroom decisions as an essential practice for citizenship development and empowerment.

This midsemester process can be expanded to include a range of other practices, formal and informal. For example, I try to come to class early to chat with students, check in with them about what is working, and inquire about concerns they might have. I routinely stay after class to answer student questions as well. Some instructors will also ask for feedback on a particular day’s class in “one-minute papers.” These papers can then be discussed in the next class session.

Facilitating Feedback

The midsemester evaluation process can be extended by inviting a colleague into the classroom to conduct a feedback session. I myself have conducted these kinds of sessions for others on three different campuses for nearly twenty years. While scholars like psychiatrist William Glasser recommend that we conduct feedback sessions—he referred to them as “classroom meetings”—in our own classes and promote the open, honest, and responsible communication that underlies effective instruction and deeper student learning, most students value the presence of a third party, which can provide integrity, confidentiality, and neutrality. Even when students want to express positive feedback, some fear that their comments will be interpreted by peers as an effort to curry favor with the teacher.

Before I conduct these sessions, I talk to instructors about any specific questions that they want me to ask and about what problems they think may exist. I like to observe the class for the first twenty-five minutes and take a few notes. I use the “instructional map” that I developed to refer to the published research and to serve as a springboard for later discussions. On one side, this map lays out three continuums for reference and discussion: (1) from instructor-directed to student-centered; (2) from product (information, skills) to process (thinking, creating, communicating); and (3) from individual to group. On the rear, I list a few of the most important factors for instruction that can also serve as a reference for later discussions, including knowledge, preparation, organization, energy or enthusiasm, clarity, time, engagement, meaningfulness, climate, feedback to students, and assessment. (I describe this instrument in greater detail in my 1999 book Metateaching and the Instructional Map.) Afterward, I visit with the instructors, share my reactions, and hand over the course surveys from the students. Whether classes are small or large, this process can produce affirming and constructive feedback. Instructors value the feedback, ideas, and support it provides; students appreciate being asked to provide feedback and, invariably, offer useful ideas for course improvement.

The Scholarship of Teaching

Another potential benefit of the midsemester student feedback process is the relevant data that can be analyzed and reported in publications. In truth, we need more of this kind of analysis from instructors. In another case I facilitated, a colleague wanted help when a student petition surfaced insisting that her classes were “unsafe” for free and open discussion. As the director of our Center for Teaching and Learning, I routinely responded to such requests for assistance from faculty. In this case, I agreed to conduct midsemester review sessions in all three of her courses the following semester as well as end-of-semester student evaluation sessions and interviews.

I found a fascinating tension between what had been perceived as a “threat” by certain students in the previous semester and what was seen as a “stimulating challenge” by students in the subsequent semester. The lengthy report I wrote seemed to end concerns about this instructor’s teaching effectiveness, and she was later promoted to full professor.

Two peer-reviewed books as well as several chapters and conference presentations emerged from my work with this instructor. Once the instructor and I had received support from Atwood Publishing, we recruited twenty other colleagues on campus to write about their experiences with diverse student populations, in particular. Three years later, we released Teaching Diversity, followed in two years by 147 Tips for Teaching Diversity. Everyone who participated received credit for contributing to these peer-reviewed publications, a concrete reward for the discussions, shared readings, and writing that ensued. In my twenty years of work in postsecondary professional development, I have never participated in anything as intense or rewarding—and the results of the work were all generated at the instructor level, with few if any additional institutional resources required.

So successful was this model of faculty-inspired scholarship that I organized two other writing projects. Gathering input from more than fifty faculty, students, and staff members on campus and elsewhere, as well as from representatives of nonprofit agencies and a local business, I led the effort to produce a practical book of instructional ideas for different audiences, 147 Tips for Teaching Sustainability. A third book in this series, 147 Tips for Teaching Peace and Reconciliation (forthcoming in 2009), will draw contributions from instructors, students, staff, and others on various campuses in the United States and overseas.

Conclusion

We could wait for campus administrators to demonstrate more leadership for instructional improvement and innovation, but few are prepared to push much beyond content coverage, the surface of traditional teaching. “Publish or perish” has a way of focusing attention on what the elite research universities deem important. In the 1990s, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued three widely read reports—the first which is often referred to as the Boyer Report—on the state of teaching and learning in higher education. These reports concluded that undergraduate education at research universities, in particular, suffers from a skewing of the faculty reward system toward research and grant writing. Because of the financial rewards that come with externally funded grants, campus administrators are often reluctant to take the time to move much beyond what is instructionally conventional and efficient.

Moreover, the divide within the academy between what low-cost adjuncts are paid, what tenure-track faculty members are paid, and what administrators are paid is growing. Who wants to rock the institutional boat and push for more substantive attention to teaching and learning when there are substantial extra salary dollars for administrative work? In its 2007–08 Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, the AAUP details the growing gap between top administrators, in particular, and those whose primary responsibility is to teach.

While we must push for more equity in pay at all levels, we as instructors can do much to improve our own teaching, deepen student learning, and support our colleagues locally and elsewhere. Conducting formal midsemester student feedback sessions and developing other mechanisms for soliciting input can resolve problems, boost morale, encourage collegial support and assistance, and provide valuable material for the scholarship of teaching.

William M. Timpson is a professor in the School of Education at Colorado State University and Fulbright senior specialist in peace and reconciliation studies. His e-mail address is timpson@cahs.colostate.edu.


Comments

I apprecited the article and sent it to our new Department Chair with the hopes that peer review for at least my courses, to begin with, could be a strting point for out department.

L.F.

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