Thursday, October 4, 2018

Guest Post by Dr. Sandra Laursen on Gathering Feedback from Students

SY - Hello colleagues! This is a guest post by Dr. Sandra Laursen, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gathering feedback from students has several potential benefits for IBL instructors. It can be important for student buy-in — building that reservoir of goodwill that helps them stay with you when the math gets tough.  It shows students that you’re listening and are interested to know about their experience and how (within limits) you might improve it.  It also helps them recognize what they can do differently themselves to improve things too. And the data can help figure out how to get better at how you implement your IBL approaches, or head off a small problem before it becomes a big one.

When you help students recognize what they learning (and indeed that they are learning at all! ), this is a form of metacognition, or thinking about one's thinking. Fostering metacognition is a good learning practice in general, one of the best.  It can help frustrated students to realize they are making progress and gaining some knowledge and skills they may not have recognized until they stopped to write them down or talk about them.  Sometimes their peers' testimony is more powerful than anything you can say.  A few weeks into the term is usually a good time; in rare cases, a second time later in the term too, to see if changes you have made are working.

Here are some student feedback strategies I’ve gathered over time from IBLers and others.  Some are take-home assignments (anonymous feedback will be the most candid) and some are things you can do in class to foster metacognition.

1.  What works?  This open-ended format asks students to write short answers to each of these:
  • What is working for you about the teaching and learning in this class so far?
  • What is not working for you about the teaching and learning in this class so far ?
  • What can you do to improve your learning?
  • What can the instructor to do improve your learning?
2.  Roses, buds and thorns:   Students write half a page about their learning experience which must include at least one rose, one thorn, and one bud.  Roses are positive things, thorns are negative things, and buds are growth-- new understandings or changed attitudes.

3.  Start-stop-continue:  Students write three short sentences:
  • one thing they'd like to stop doing in class to enhance their learning.
  • one thing that they would like to start doing in class to enhance their learning.
  • one thing that they'd like to continue doing in class to enhance their learning.
4.  Plus-delta:  A daily feedback method where students write short responses to two questions:
  • Plus: What helped you learn today?
  • Delta: What should we change together to help you learn better?
5.  Consensogram: Baseline knowledge/emotion check on any topic. If you Google consensogram, there are a bunch of images (mostly with younger students) that show it in use.  I could imagine using this to launch a discussion to help students recognize what they are learning beyond mathematics:  speaking and listening skills, teamwork, logical thinking, appreciation for others’ thinking, and more.

6.  The SALG (Student Assessment of their Learning Gains) instrument is a survey instrument developed specifically to address the fact that institutional end-of-course forms often focus more on what students liked rather than what they learned.  It is highly adaptable by instructors; see

The SALG-M is a form of the Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG) survey instrument that is customized for undergraduate mathematics courses. My research colleagues and I have used this survey to examine students' learning gains across a range of cognitive, affective, and social domains and it is available to instructors and researchers. To examine or use the SALG-M, please download these instructions and visit to set up and customize a copy for your own use.    —>  go to Tools item

7.  Your local teaching and learning center may be able to help you.  Many of them offer focus groups and other ways of gathering student feedback.

Whenever you gather feedback from students, in order to get the buy-in benefit, it’s important to do something with it --to respond to their feedback in some way.  Tell them a few key points about what you heard and understood, and how you are taking it on board.  You don’t have to report back on everything students said, just a few key points that may be actionable this term.  This might mean explaining your teaching approach:  if they don’t like presentations, for example, it doesn’t mean you stop doing them. Rather, respond by saying something like, "Many of you responded that you did not like presentations. Here is why I find them valuable.... I do want them to benefit your learning, so please take a few minutes and write on a notecard a few suggestions for how we can make student presentations more beneficial to you."  (thanks to Jess Ellis Hagman for this example)

Learning is a joint effort; it’s always smart to ask students what they can do as well as what you can do. Meet them partway by making an adjustment yourself, even a small one, based on their feedback--and be sure they understand that you’re responding to their input.  This shows them you’re listening!  Recognize too that some of students’ ideas about what to do about a problem are more useful for telling you what the problem is, but not necessarily providing the best possible solution to that problem. So try to treat their suggestions as helping you diagnose their concerns.

Finally, self-reflection and collaboration with colleagues are key tools for improving your practice.  Can you journal for a few minutes after class or at the end of the week?  Annotate assignments or the syllabus with things you’ll change next time? Read a blog post or a book on learning? Swap classroom visits with a colleague? Agree with a colleague to try a specific feedback practice and then discuss what you learn from it?  Join a listserv on teaching and learning or follow fellow educators on twitter?  Paying attention to what your students think and feel is a powerful tool for improvement, and being interested in strengthening your IBL practice is already a great start.

More about metacognition:
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  See Ch. 7, How do students become self-directed learners?  (I recommend the rest of this book too)

More on administering and responding to student feedback, from Prof. Robert Talbert, Grand Valley State University:

More examples of feedback methods and questions: