Case Studies in Formative Feedback at HGSE

by: Josh Bookin

Committing to the use of student feedback is one thing; creating effective methods for doing so is another. To help you in this work, this article highlights the diverse and impactful practices of three HGSE instructors on gathering student feedback. We asked each of these instructors to give us a sense of what the technique is, why they use it, and how they do so.

Student feedback

Mid-course feedback: a chance to take stock and course correct | Jon Star

What is it?

It is relatively common for faculty to gather mid-course feedback, giving students a chance to share their perspective on how the elements of the class are impacting their learning experience. There are many ways to solicit this feedback, and Jon’s current method involves priming students with some things he would like to learn about in particular and then posing just a few open-ended prompts to allow students to share whatever is most important to them. Jon then decides if and how to modify the course accordingly.

Why do it?

“I teach a course on learning and motivation. I’m someone who is supposed to know something about these topics, and I try to reflect that knowledge in how I design my classes. I know giving students some choice and perceived control over aspects of the course is motivating. And gathering feedback consistently through the course, not just at the end, is a key way in which I make this happen,” reflects Jon. He finds great value in creating a space in the middle of the course experience to have students think broadly about what is and is not working for them. This feedback allows Jon to modify various course components to best meet the needs of these particular students while also building a sense of shared ownership.

How to do it?

Perhaps the first thing to decide is when to solicit mid-course feedback. Jon tends to do it no later than the middle of the semester, as he wants to have enough time to have students benefit from any modifications. But he will often do as earlier as a third of the way into the semester, particularly if the class seems like it isn’t coming together in all the ways Jon has intended.

Although he used to employ extensive instruments, Jon has evolved his practice to create a simplified, open-ended questionnaire. He often will prime the feedback session by letting students know that he welcomes feedback about any aspect of the course, but that he is particularly curious about their thoughts on specific components. He will then give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write on one side things about the class that are working well for them and on the other suggestions they have for improvement. Jon has students complete the survey in class, as it helps them know that he really values the process and it ensures that they spend an adequate amount of time giving feedback.

Jon then synthesizes the feedback, looking for common patterns. He decides how he will use the feedback to modify the course, for instance substituting some of the upcoming assigned readings or tweaking his instructional methods. Jon then reports two things back to the students in the next class: the things he will change, and the things he won’t change and why. This efficient report out gives students a sense of what they and their peers think, informs them about what is going to change, and lets them know that Jon cares about what they think.

Reading response briefs: integrating student feedback into class session design | Candice Bocala

What is it?

Students complete and submit short written assignments called “reading briefs” in advance of class. The teaching team reviews the briefs to identify common patterns and to decide how to incorporate students’ insights and questions about the reading into designing the class session. The teaching team also gives individual feedback on the briefs.

Why do it?

“This tool gives me much better information about where students are confused, rather than relying only on the information I get from what students say in class or during office hours. Because it is in writing, I can address any misconceptions right away on their brief, and I can also address it in the whole class when useful.” Candice also uses the briefs as a way to help select the topics of discussion that best meet students where they are at. She often invites students to share their responses and questions during the class, thus diversifying participation and sharing discussion leadership.

How to do it?

Candice’s approach to these briefs is well described in her Learning from Practice: Evaluation and Improvement Science syllabus:

“Reading response ‘briefs’: Out of five weeks’ worth of readings, students are expected to choose any three weeks to submit a written “brief” that provides a reaction to the readings for that week. Briefs are short analytic and reflective memos (2–3 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font) that examine the essential questions for that week referenced in the syllabus. The argument and use of content in the brief is completely up to the student; however, each brief should demonstrate an understanding of the readings as well as application to the students’ project with the partner organization or to future work. Briefs are due by midnight on the Monday before each class begins, and students will receive feedback from the teaching team by the end of that week.

Only requiring briefs some of the time accomplishes several goals: it gives students some flexibility in managing their workload, it allows them to focus more deeply on topics that most interest them, and it makes it more manageable for the teaching team in terms of giving feedback and applying the information. The teaching team then makes use of this information, as discussed in the section above. When inviting students to share something from their brief, Candice will often email students in advance to help them prepare for their contribution. She will also thread students’ insights from briefs into her comments, connecting student ideas to key course concepts.

Pluses and deltas: gathering student perspectives after a given class session | Kathy Boudett

What is it?

“Pluses and deltas” is a simple and versatile vehicle for gathering student feedback at any time, often at the end of a class session. The key elements are soliciting student perspectives on what has gone well (pluses) and where there might be room for improvement (deltas, which comes from the Greek symbol for change) and then exploring how this information might be used to improve the course experience. Critical to making this practice work is dedicating time in class to share an overview of their suggestions and the resulting responses.

Why do it?

“I really want to teach amazing classes, and a key part of doing so is to gather formative feedback on an on-going basis to make sure I am meeting the needs of these particular students,” says Kathy. She finds that students give immensely helpful feedback and that, in doing so, they become more invested in the course and the classroom community. Her own research is focused on the power of continuous improvement, and this pluses and deltas technique is an effective way to apply that principle to her own practice.

How to do it?

There are two main ways to employ this technique: soliciting feedback together as a group and gathering feedback individually.

Soliciting feedback together:
Kathy usually sets aside five to ten minutes at the end of a class session to do pluses and deltas as a group. If she has ten minutes, which is preferred, she tends to give students a minute to think individually and then one or two minutes to share with a partner. It is important to Kathy that everyone has a chance to share their perspective, even if just with a peer. She then solicits feedback from the group, while she or a teaching fellow scribes the comments. Kathy tries to have time for as many comments as possible, so she tends to simply thank each student for their contribution. But it is also important for Kathy to model a non-defensive stance to feedback, so she will often respond with curiosity and affirmation to the deltas.

(If Kathy only has five minutes for feedback, she will use a more specific prompt, such as: “Today we used a case study in the last 30 minutes as a vehicle for applying the new conceptual principles. I’d love some feedback on how that went for everyone.” She also will move more quickly to the whole-group discussion.)

She then meets with her teaching team outside of class to discuss how to adjust the next class in light of the feedback. If so, she will often report those changes at the start of the next class session, but on occasion she will just incorporate the suggestions without further discussion. Regardless of how she responds, Kathy is unequivocal that “students need to know that this feedback is taken seriously and is benefiting the classroom community.”

Soliciting feedback individually:
In this version of the technique, Kathy has students fill out an online plus/delta survey during the last 5 minutes of class. The teaching team then compiles the data, creates a summary of the main areas of feedback, decides how to respond to the deltas, and prepares a short presentation for the next class session. In that presentation, the teaching team will share the summary data and discuss the implications for each of the deltas. It may mean altering some aspect of upcoming lessons, reteaching a concept that was not clear, engaging in an open conversation about a proposed change, or discussing why a valid piece of feedback will not result in a change in this iteration of the course.