As we near the end of this unprecedented academic year, with the promise of something resembling “normal” in the fall, it’s a good time for reflection. We’ve made monumental changes in our approaches to teaching, and we need to decide if we want to continue some of these new practices in the future. There’s no better time than now to reflect on this, while everything is fresh in our minds and while we still have direct interactions with students.
In the higher-ed blogosphere, some writers have made recommendations (see post on The Conversation) about which teaching practices are worth keeping, such as recording lectures (see Chronicle article), and also which pre-pandemic teaching strategies we should leave behind.
I’m trying to apply these questions to my own specific course changes. In one course this past year, my co-instructors and I made a huge shift away from traditional tests to a series of homework assignments and low-stakes quizzes. The changes worked well, overall, for our current conditions, but I wasn’t convinced that they improved learning compared to the traditional route. I wasn’t sure how to approach next year… that is, until I talked to my students.
For this relatively large class, I was lucky to have six undergraduate TAs, four of whom had taken the course in the “before times” with traditional tests and two who took the homework-focused course last fall. This spring, I asked them to consider the current course (in which they are TAs) in comparison to previous experiences in either this course or other courses, and tell me what parts they thought worked best, focusing on learning as well as overall well-being.
Their responses were clear and unanimous: the traditional testing model was not optimal for learning because it encouraged cramming and purging. They felt that the assignment-heavier format engaged students more than the exam-heavier format did. It should be noted that these TAs are high-achieving, independent, and motivated students who excelled in the course themselves, so their responses are unlikely to simply reflect a desire for easier work. That said, the method they prefer is not, in fact, easier, because students likely spent much more time on the homework assignments than they would have on studying for and taking exams!
I now feel confident that my approach of engaging students through homework assignments, rather than studying for exams, is worth continuing.
The point is not to advocate for the same changes in your course design, but rather to encourage you to talk to your students about what’s working now that could continue to be helpful for students who take the course in the future.
Here are some suggestions for how to go about that:
- If you have TAs, have a targeted discussion on this topic with them.
- If you have a chatty class where you can reasonably expect that most students will participate, have a discussion with them to reflect together and ask:
- What’s worked best to help your learning in this course?
- What helped or what was difficult about “new approach X”?
- If things were back to ‘normal’ in the fall, do you think “new approach X” or “old approach Y” (which you’ve experienced in past courses) would work best for your learning?
- How do you feel about the learning you’ll carry with you from the course – do you think it would it be different if we had done “old approach Y”?
- Ask for student feedback by anonymous survey on Blackboard (encourage participation with the offer of extra credit). You can use questions like those above but also add more specific questions in this format, including true/false, multiple choice, or ranking style questions for results that are easy to analyze
- Finally, don’t depend on your course evaluations to give you these perspectives because the questions don’t typically elicit feedback on the specific aspects of courses that you may be most interested in, and they certainly won’t get at comparisons with another possible course structure.
I hope you’ll take the opportunity to reflect with your students, and get their perspective on what’s working for you to continue in the future!