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Student Feedback: Should It Change Course Structure?

Studies with Practical Implications

Student Feedback: Should It Change Course Structure?

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When it comes to making decisions about what happens in courses, students don’t have much say. Teachers decide what students learn, how they’ll learn it, when they’ll learn it, and finally, whether they have learned it. Expertise and professional responsibilities give teacher power over what happens in the course. Does that mean teachers should have complete control over student learning processes? It’s an interesting question because even though teachers wield a lot of power in their courses, they can’t make learning happen; students decide whether and how well they’ll learn what’s being taught. On the one hand, when learning is at the behest of others and when learners have no role or say regarding how it happens, motivation falters and learning tends to be superficial. On the other, students are novice learners in most college courses. Should they be making decisions about how the course is structured? Will they make good decisions, and how does this decision-making affect them and the course? This study offers an answer to those questions.

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When it comes to making decisions about what happens in courses, students don’t have much say. Teachers decide what students learn, how they’ll learn it, when they’ll learn it, and finally, whether they have learned it. Expertise and professional responsibilities give teacher power over what happens in the course. Does that mean teachers should have complete control over student learning processes? It’s an interesting question because even though teachers wield a lot of power in their courses, they can’t make learning happen; students decide whether and how well they’ll learn what’s being taught. On the one hand, when learning is at the behest of others and when learners have no role or say regarding how it happens, motivation falters and learning tends to be superficial. On the other, students are novice learners in most college courses. Should they be making decisions about how the course is structured? Will they make good decisions, and how does this decision-making affect them and the course? This study offers an answer to those questions.

The study

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

The research questions

Interesting background information

Giving students choice about aspects of the course has been explored over the past several decades as part of the move toward more learner-centered approaches. Faculty have tried giving students some control over what to learn in the course (by involving them in decisions about course reading), how to learn (by offering some assignment choices), when to learn (by giving students some due date flexibility), and the assessment of their learning (with modest student discretion over the weight of assignments and tests). In general, the control given to students has been minimal, with many design details that seek to prevent bad decision-making. Although there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that giving students some power over course details significantly changes the learning dynamic, there hasn’t been much research that specifically details those effects.

Far more research has been done on the value of formative midcourse feedback. Pragmatically, it gives instructors the feedback and time to make changes that may improve the course. It has also been shown to raise course ratings, provided instructors share the results with students and explain what they intend to do about them.

The study cohort

Seventy-three undergraduates in an upper-division psychology course on perception formed the cohort.

Methodology overview

Students were given four opportunities to provide feedback during the course. They did so on a course feedback form that asked for their overall impressions and identified certain aspects of it that could be changed. The instructor implemented three changes determined by student vote: (1) more movie clips, (2) sample multiple-choice questions presented at the end of class, and (3) the inclusion of more real-world examples during lecture.

Key findings

Cautions and caveats

The cohort size was small, discipline based, and at a single institution. The two student groups used in the comparison were not stratified, random samples, and no analysis was done to determine the level of similarity between the cohort groups. The improved exam scores of the experimental group may have occurred because, as the authors note, that group was simply “better” than those in the other section.

The analysis does not sort out whether the positive changes resulted from the regular opportunity to provide course feedback or from the implemented changes or some combination of the two.

Practical implications (what you might want to do about the findings)

This work is another strong endorsement of the value of soliciting midcourse formative feedback. They provide the instructor with timely input and tangibly illustrate that the instructor cares about student learning experiences in the course.

The amount of control shared with these students was minimal. The instructor gave them a choice of course changes. The selected changes were identified by vote. Even so, students gave a ringing endorsement to all three changes. The implication then is that sharing even small course-related decisions with students can change their feelings about the course and learning experiences in it.

Related research

Most of research that establishes the value of midsemester feedback is old but has stood the test of time. Here’s the classic meta-analysis that showed that instructors who used midsemester evaluation had higher ratings (one-third of a standard deviation) on their end-of-course evaluations than instructors who did not:

Cohen, P. A. (1980). Effectiveness of student-rating feedback for improving college instruction: A meta-analysis of findings. Research in Higher Education, 13, 321–341. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00976252


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