Tools for reflecting on your teaching

A mosaic depicting a man taking a picture with a digital camera; made of many smaller indiscernable imagesTo help you reflect on your teaching, you need some data. You may collect feedback on your teaching at any time of the term and from a variety of sources: your students, your colleagues, and yourself. This sheet provides a number of tools for you to choose from when collecting data about your teaching.

Students’ input:

  1. Open-ended questionnaires

    Description: This tool requires students to provide written or verbal responses to various questions. It can be combined with closed-questions or a checklist. If using this technique, keep in mind that some questions can be too open (i.e., What did you like most/least about this course? could produce responses about how you dress). Try to focus students on their learning (i.e., What is helping you to learn in this course?), and ask them to provide examples and to recommend strengths, weaknesses, and ideas for improvement. Example: How does the sequence of course content in this class support or undermine your learning?


    Variation: Use sentence stems instead of complete sentences to prompt student responses (i.e., If I could change one thing in this class, it would be …)


    Caveat: Students generally have no training in observing instructional processes. As a result, they may have difficulties describing their reactions clearly and providing suggestions. To receive quality suggestions, you may need to give adequate time - perhaps overnight - for students to think about their responses.

  2. Closed-ended questionnaires

    Description: These questionnaires involve using a fixed set of items to solicit responses to certain characteristics of a course. Responses are scored on a scale (i.e., one to five, one to seven) or are multiple choice. These questionnaires are often machine-scorable, making them a good choice for any class size. Example: The way the course content is structured is clear and logical to me. Strongly disagree 1 2 3 4 5 Strongly agree


    Variation: Ask students to complete the questionnaire. Then on a separate sheet of paper, ask them to highlight the three items with the highest ratings and the three with the lowest and list one or two specific behaviours or course incidents that made them give those ratings.


    Caveats: This tool generally gives you only a general sense of the class's response. Also, if you do not use the variation listed or include a few open-ended questions, you will not receive any concrete ideas about why students gave the ratings they did. This tool used on its own also does not allow students to suggest ideas for improvement.

  3. Checklists and inventories

    Description: These tools are like closed-ended questionnaires without the scale. They essentially establish the presence, absence, and extent of a behaviour or activity. They can be quite effective to use when reviewing an audio- or videotape (i.e., a taped class). These tools represent a good starting point if you're wary of collecting formative feedback. They may also help clarify discrepancies between how you view your teaching and how your students view your teaching. Example: Is the course material clear and logical? yes__ no__


    Variations: Have students watch a videotape of another professor and rate that. Then use those comments to determine what also applies to your own teaching style. If you are wary of an initial feedback session, using a videotape of another professor will take the focus away from you. You can also supplement checklists with an open-ended section.


    Caveats: With these tools, you can only learn about what you do (or don't do), not whether these activities are effective or how to improve them.

  4. The one-minute paper and the muddiest point

    Description: These exercises ask students to provide a written response to a specific prompt that you have given. The prompt is usually written on the board or an overhead for the class to see. They then take one minute to think about the question and another to write their responses. You collect the papers and assess them for recurrent themes, then you can address these themes in the following class. Example: What was the most important concept discussed during this class? What question(s) do you still have?


    Variations: Instead of asking students to tell what they understood during the class, ask them what the muddiest point of the lecture was, so you can learn what you may need to explain differently in future classes. Another variation is to divide the class into small groups and have them identify one or two common themes. Then have each group report them to the class.


    Caveats: Since the one-minute paper is time restricted, students may not be able clearly articulate what they are thinking in such a short time span. You may decide to change this technique to be a little longer. Also the tool provides little opportunity for you to receive feedback on how to improve your teaching; it is more of a fact-finding technique about students' learning. The tool only gives you feedback on your instructional techniques if you specifically ask for it.

  5. Blank index cards

    Description: Similar to the one-minute paper, blank index cards enable you to gather a small amount of feedback quickly and easily. Students respond to two questions that you pose, answering one question per card side. The questions could be very general (i.e., What do you want more of? Less of?) or more specific (i.e., Are the problem sets too difficult?). Only allow students one to two minutes to jot down their ideas. With any more time, they may become frustrated with the limited paper space.


    Caveats: The limited space may limit the depth and value of the responses; this is not a tool for extended feedback.

  6. Suggestion box

    Description: This tool could involve bringing a suggestion box to your classroom every class or hanging an envelope on your office door. Students can use this method to provide you with anonymous suggestions regarding your teaching or the course in general. If using this type of assessment, be sure to direct students about what types of suggestions you would like: the more open you are, the more unfocussed the suggestions will be. Scan the suggestions regularly to put them into context, summarize them for the class, and indicate which ones you will act on and why.


    Caveats: Students who write their suggestions by hand may not be totally honest since you may recognize their writing. Encourage students to submit typed suggestions if they are concerned.

  7. In-class troubleshooting sessions

    Description: If you have a solid rapport with your class, you may want to try a more direct approach to collecting feedback. With this method, you begin each class by asking students to raise issues, make complaints, and ask questions. In order for this to work effectively, students must see the value in such a discussion since it will take away from class time. There needs to be an atmosphere of openness and honest sharing to make this worthwhile. It is a time for discussion about the course and their learning.


    Caveats: Students need to know what your rationale is for doing such an exercise. Without this explanation, the exercise will not reach its full potential.

  8. Learning letter or student journal

    Description: Learning letters give students a more traditional venue for providing you with feedback about your course and your teaching. Students may feel more comfortable with this pen and paper (or computer) method, and the personal quality of a letter may encourage them to be more open and honest. As with many of the other tools discussed, try to keep the questions focussed to ensure you receive feedback only on the areas you are interested in. Also, you may want to set a length limit on the letters to limit the amount of reading you will have to do. Give students time to reflect on what they are going to say and pass it in next day. Once all letters have been collected and read, post or read your response letter to the class. This letter should include answers to common questions and your plans to address their concerns.


    Caveats: This method may not be reasonable to use with a large class because of the reading it requires. Also, if students choose to use pen and paper, they may be concerned that you will recognize their handwriting and they may avoid being totally honest.

  9. Email

    Description: Email allows for immediate feedback from students. Simply pose a question or set of questions about the class, send it to your students or post it on an electronic bulletin board, and students can respond whenever they choose. You may, however, want to set a time limit for responses so you can move on to other question areas. You also need a system that ensures student anonymity. This tool works best in classes where students are already using computers for other purposes.


    Caveats: You should avoid this method if not all of your students have access to email or if you cannot commit to checking your messages on a regular basis. You should also not have email replace office hours.

  10. Voice mail

    Description: Like email, students can use your voice mail at any time of the day or night to leave messages or provide feedback. Students are likely to use this tool only to inform you of their problems with the course content, not your instructional techniques. If using this method, be sure to check your messages regularly, particularly before each class so you can respond to students’ questions as soon as possible.


    Caveats: It is unlikely you will get extensive, open feedback, since you may be able to identify students’ voices. As with email, voice mail should not replace office hours.

  11. Student liaison committee (“ombuddies”)

    Description: “Ombuddies” or the student liaison committee can be an excellent way of getting feedback from large classes in particular. With this tool, a group of student volunteers act as a liaison between you and the class. The group can meet independently on a regular basis and then periodically meet with you to provide you with the feedback they have gleaned from their classmates. Or, this can be less formal and the students simply report to you questions or concerns as they arise. This method can be as formal or informal as you wish. What is important is that you provide the volunteers with some guidance about how to function as a committee and how to solicit and collect feedback from their peers. As well, the class should always know who the volunteers are and should receive regular reports from the “ombuddies” and/or you.


    Variation: You may want to give the students who volunteer on the committee some compensation for their time, such as credit for one assignment or bonus marks.


    Caveats: This tool can sometimes be quite time-intensive for you to meet with committee members regularly.

  12. Group instructional feedback

    Description: An outside facilitator, such as a colleague or someone from Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE), leads this technique once you have introduced it and left the room. The method involves having the students respond to questions individually, then moving into groups of 4-6 and recording the responses they agree on. The facilitator then reconvenes the whole class and asks groups to share responses in an effort to probe for further clarification and let the class see common ideas. The facilitator collects the groups’ response sheets and prepares a report for you. The activity takes 25-30 minutes and generally involves the following open-ended questions:


    Caveats: An outside facilitator may have difficulty understanding the course content. As a result, if that is the focus of your concern, you may be better to ask a colleague in your department to lead the exercise. Another concern is the vocal student with complaints who may negatively influence the others. A strong facilitator will limit this possibility. Finally, you will have to give up some class time to use this technique effectively.

    • What is helping you to learn in this course? (Strengths/Specific Examples)
    • What could be changed to assist you with your learning? (Changes/Ways to Make Changes)
    • Other Comments? (Not to be discussed with the whole class)

Colleagues’ input

  1. Classroom visit

    Description: The best way for colleagues to provide feedback on your teaching is to watch you teach. The classroom visit enables colleagues to experience both your teaching style and your students’ reactions to it. To ensure you receive useful feedback from the visit, you should meet with your colleague in advance and discuss what you hope the visit will accomplish. Ask yourself: What do I want feedback on? And can I act on the feedback I may receive? Thoughtful pre-planning will result in more focussed comments that you can put into action. Also keep in mind that you are under no obligation to tell your students that you have a colleague observing the class, but you may want to tell them to demonstrate you are interested in improving your teaching. Other tools you may want to use for the visit are checklists (as described in the student section) and videotapes (described next). Plan to meet with your colleague after the visit in order to receive feedback.


    Variation: Instead of having a colleague come into your class, perhaps you could go into theirs. By observing what a colleague does, particularly within your own department, you may become aware of new teaching practices. Upon reflection, you may decide to incorporate or eliminate some techniques in your own teaching.


    Caveats: Some faculty members may feel awkward about inviting a colleague, particularly their own department, to sit in on a class. If you are concerned about confidentiality, please consider contacting the CTE office for a confidential classroom visit.

  2. Microteaching (videotape)

    Description: This feedback method involves having your class videotaped. The video operator should tape you and your students to get a picture of your teaching and your students’ reactions to your teaching. You can then review the tape on your own or, preferably, with a colleague (for a second opinion). This tool can be even more helpful if you use a checklist or some specific prompts when analyzing the video. This is an excellent resource for discovering exactly what you do and don’t do when teaching a class and does not have to be done for an entire class (i.e., 15 minutes of a 60-minute class, 25 minutes of a 90-minute class). Example checklist prompts:


    Caveats: This method offers factual information, but some faculty may find it too revealing to be comfortable with it. Consider reviewing the tape with a CTE consultant for confidential feedback.

    • What am I doing well/not doing well?
    • What do the students seem to enjoy least/most?
    • If I could do this session again, what are 3 things I would change?
    • What resources do I need to use in order to change?

Your input

  1. Journals

    Description: Following each class, go to your office and write down what you felt worked and did not work for that day and why. Make note of things that you would like to keep the next time you deliver this class and things you should change. It is also a good idea to record any questions that students asked so that you can address them in the next delivery of the class. This tool can also be effective as an ongoing self-evaluation and can be a way to determine what you would like to change or keep the same in any teaching situation (i.e., delivery style).


    Variation: You may have a specific set of questions that you ask yourself after each class. Such as: “What worked well in my last class? How can I do more of that?” or “What concepts or areas did my students not seem to understand? How can I change that?”

  2. Questionnaires/checklists

    Description: Any questionnaire or checklist you have students or colleagues complete, you should complete as well and use as a point of comparison. How do your answers compare to those of your observers'? Similar answers can boost your confidence in your ability to read your class, while discrepancies can uncover problem areas you weren’t aware existed.


    Caveats: It is often more useful to discuss the feedback with others to clarify your understanding of the data and to see the data from another perspective. If you rely solely on yourself, you may not get an accurate picture of what is really going on.

  3. Assessment tools as feedback tools

    Description: Use your tests and exams as indicators of student learning. The simplest way to use these is with multiple choice exams and examproc. Instead of just getting the marks and giving them out, review the trends. In the examproc program, for example, you can get data indicating each student's answer to each individual question. You can use these counts to determine what areas most students seem to understand or have trouble with. If you discover that most of the class answered a specific question incorrectly, you can review this concept again. You may also want to review the way you worded the question to determine its clarity or refer back to the class when you taught the concept to determine whether or not the confusion could have been a result of the way you taught that particular concept.


    Caveats: You may not get an accurate picture of what caused students to answer the question correctly or incorrectly. Perhaps your method could have been effective but outside factors (i.e., a concert the night before) led people to pay less attention that day. As well, multiple choice questions do not provide a clear picture of why students choose a specific response because they do not allow for elaboration. You may need to follow up your statistical analysis with class discussion focussing on why students chose the answers they did.

CTE can help at any point in the feedback process, including questionnaire development, data collection, data analysis, and ideas for improvement. All of these services are available to you on a confidential basis. Please call the CTE Office (x33132) for more information or assistance.

References

  • Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Boud, D. & Kilty, J. (1995). “Using Self Appraisal with Peer Feedback in Professional Development.” Enhancing Learning through Self-Assessment. D. Boud (ed.) London: Kogan Page Ltd.
  • Brown, S. (1998). Peer Assessment in Practice. Birmingham, UK: SEDA Publications.
  • Davis, B.G. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
  • Diamond, R.M. (1997). Designing and Assessing Courses and Curricula. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Fenwick, T. & Parsons, J. (2000). The Art of Evaluation: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers. Toronto, ON: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.
  • Freeman, R. & Lewis, R. (1998). Planning and Implementing Assessment. London: Kogan Page Ltd.
  • Fuhrmann, B.S. & Grasha, A.F. (1982). A Practical Handbook for College Teachers. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Gedalof, A. (1998). Teaching Large Classes. Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.
  • Rando, W.C. & Lenze, L.F. (1994). Learning from Students. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.
  • Wilson, R.C. (1987). “Toward Excellence in Teaching.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Techniques for Evaluating and Improving Instruction. No. 31. L.M. Aleamoni (ed.) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc, pp. 15-17.