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Midcourse Feedback: A Great Idea

For Those Who Teach

Midcourse Feedback: A Great Idea

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Most courses are reaching or have reached their midpoint. So how are they going? We have our opinions, and they do matter. But what would students say about their courses at this point? Midcourse feedback is a way to find out, and there are all sorts of good reasons to collect it. In case you need a nudge, here are some reminders of why it is such a good idea:

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  • The focus is formative. What’s working well, and what isn’t? What changes might improve the course? It’s diagnostic feedback, input with the potential to make the course and student learning experiences even better.
  • The feedback is for you and the students. This data collection isn’t for academic leaders who make judgments.
  • It’s course-specific feedback. Selecting the questions allows you to focus the feedback. It’s a chance to ask about the aspects of teaching and learning that matter to you.
  • You’ll have time to make changes based on the feedback.
  • If teachers make a habit of talking about how the course is going, asking for feedback and making changes in response to input from students, students will provide better feedback and have a stake in the success of the changes they’ve proposed.
  • Research has documented that when teachers collect and respond to midcourse feedback, end-of-course ratings improve at statistically significant levels.

Researchers paid considerable attention to midcourse feedback in the wave of studies on student evaluations that occurred in the 1980s and early ’90s. Research on ratings has waned since then. Most institutional policies and practices remain focused on end-of-course, summative assessments even though that feedback has a poor record of improving instruction. But some recent work documents yet again the value of collecting and acting on midcourse feedback.

In a small but impressive study (McConnell & Dodd, 2017), the researchers collected feedback from students three times during the course. During an early class session, the instructor and students brainstormed a list of potential changes that might improve the course once it got underway. Then at each feedback point, students voted on those changes, and the highest-scoring change was implemented. The changes involved fairly minor aspects of the course—for example, more quizzes, more partner discussions in class, more video clips during class, more real-world examples, and sample multiple-choice questions offered at the end of class sessions. The latter three examples were selected by students and implemented immediately. This use of midcourse feedback resulted in significantly better end-of-course ratings than the instructor received in an earlier version of the course he taught without collecting midcourse feedback. From the more telling perspective of student learning, exam scores improved significantly on two of the three exams, again compared with exam scores in the course in which the instructor did not collect feedback.

According to the researchers, “The vast majority of students believed each of these changes improved the overall quality of the class. Unsurprisingly then, students also indicated that they wish other classes would implement evaluation forms like the CFF [course feedback form]” (p. 95). That result makes sense given how rarely most students see an instructor make changes based on feedback they’ve provided. Teachers may use rating data to implement changes, but not while the students who provided the feedback are still taking the course. So when an instructor solicits their input and does something about it, most students respond enthusiastically.

Technology expedites the collection of feedback from students. From classroom management systems to online survey mechanisms to clickers and smartphones, tools for collecting feedback abound. Most instructors know what questions they’d like to ask. If they don’t, there are plenty of sample instruments around. This study shares its CFF in an appendix. Asking a reasonable number of questions makes dealing with the data manageable. Midcourse questions provide the most useful answers when they are specific and ask about aspects of instruction that can be changed. Also, it’s best to focus on changes that effect learning. It’s not about accommodating students’ likes and dislikes; it’s about identifying changes that better supports their efforts to learn. Finally, it sometimes helps to change the format—to ask for feedback without using a typical survey format. Here’s a link to an efficient way of getting course feedback. As analysis revealed, it improved the quality of the feedback students provided.

It’s worth taking the pulse of a course midway through. Yes, you can feel the beat without putting your finger on it, but more precise feedback improves the chance of success if your goal is ongoing course improvement.

Reference

McDonnell, G. P., & Dodd, M. D. (2017). Should students have the power to change course structure? Teaching of Psychology, 44(2), 91–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628317692604

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