The animals went in two by two to be saved from the flood. To some students, doing poorly on the first exam is also a calamity of biblical proportions. A bad first grade is often nearly impossible to recover from if no changes to studying are incorporated. First tests of learning can be the perfect metacognitive moment for a student to assess whether they need to change how they are studying. They are also a perfect opportunity for us faculty to get a sense of the effectiveness of our teaching. Here is a simple two-by-two methodology that can help you help your students learn better—and evolve your teaching along the way.
In the realms of learning assessment and evaluations of teaching, we are all familiar with the commonly used summative measures. Students take final exams that are cumulative and complete student evaluations of teaching (SETs). The SETs are often electronic, not always completed, and vary in their reliability and validity from campus to campus (see earlier pieces on this). The problem, one of many, is that by the time of the final SET, the course is done. As much as you would like to be a better teacher, those SETs will serve only the next set of students who take a course with you after you modify your teaching. The final exams also serve as a terminal point for learning in that class, putting the sum total of the semester’s learning experiences on display. While such cumulative assessments have their purpose, a good course should have multiple opportunities for the formative assessment of learning (Suskie, 2018). So too should the evaluation of teaching.
When we give students a chance to evaluate our teaching early in the semester, we have a chance to change the learning experience for those students right away. Just as a formative assessment of learning helps a student get a sense of how their attempts to learn to that point have fared, a formative assessment of teaching, provides us faculty with key information to allow us to make course corrections. Most universities mandate a SET but then only suggest a formative evaluation of teaching. This is a valuable opportunity for the improvement of teaching. Don’t waste it.
Here is a really easy way to do it. The Two-by-Two Formative Assessment (or 2×2FA) involves asking students four questions (yes, 2 × 2 = 4). Two questions ask them to reflect on their own behavior. The other two ask them to reflect on your work as a teacher. There are low- and high-tech ways. My favorite way is to hand out a stack of index cards (the larger the better). I do it the day after the first exam and set aside class time at the start of class.
Each student gets a card. I tell them to draw a line down the center of each side of it from top to bottom. At the top of the left columns, they write the phrase “helped me learn,” and at the top of the right ones, they write the phrase “can help me learn.” On one side of the card, I have them write my name. On the other, I have them write the word “me.”
Now we are all set to go. The student has to complete the card to respond to the four questions on their card: What did I do that helped me learn? What can I do to help me learn? What did Dr. Gurung do that helped me learn? What can Dr. Gurung do to help me learn? Sit back. Give them time. Be prepared to give them a lot of time.
The first time I did this, students wrote for about 15 minutes, and I was really worried about how much I must have messed up till that point and how much they were venting. I laid bets with myself as to which of the four columns would have the most written in it. I took all the cards, had a student worker type them all up (it was a class of 35), then I awaited the document to see what was in there. For my large classes, I use Qualtrics survey software or a Google Form, both of which easily give me all the information in an Excel file for easy scanning.
First, a warning. Do not look at the responses if you are tired or at the end of long day. There may be comments that make you defensive, irritable, or even mildly peeved. The reality is that given this is early in the semester and you clearly show you care, students are mostly respectful and constructive.
Next, some good news. Do this often and you will have even less to fear and even more to celebrate.
In most of my uses of the 2×2FA, the column with the most words is the one where students reflect on what they can do differently next time. If you have shared a lot of study techniques and skills, you should see a lot of those showing up here: “I will plan better,” “I will come to class,” “I will read the book,” “I will space out my learning.” The corresponding column for students (what they did that helped) will show a lot of the same items as the successful students tend to follow the evidence-informed practices you shared. I share all these responses with the students in class orally, or sometimes the entire document of transcribed responses. The students get to see what successful study strategies their peers came up with as well as the ways many of them stumbled. They also get to see some great suggestions. In my most recent use of the 2×2FA, a student wrote, “I decided to leave my phone at home to not be distracted.” I said to the class, “Do what it takes!”
The 2×2FA provides students with an early opportunity for self-reflection and in a markedly different way from exam wrappers, when students do a similar task right after an exam as part of the exam (Soicher & Gurung, 2017). I believe that students’ having distance from the exam and knowing their scores lends to better reflection. There is little to no evidence for the success of exam wrappers, and while I am collecting data on the utility of the 2×2FA, the anecdotal evidence of the changes in behaviors from students is accumulating. But that’s not all. This method is a great way for me to improve as a teacher.
I take a close look at both columns in reference to my work and the feedback provides me with many key pieces of information. First, in stark recognition of how it is hard to satisfy everyone and how students’ opinions of your teaching will differ, I often see items in the “does” column repeated in the “should do” column: “Dr. G’s slides have just the right amount of information.” “Dr. G’s slides have too little information.” “Dr. G’s pacing is perfect.” “Dr. G talks too fast.” When I share this fact with the class, they see how hard it is to be just right for everyone. Apart from these stylistic comments on the dynamics of delivery and presentation, there are often comments that show students did not read the syllabus or missed announcements in class. These are easily rectified (e.g., “Dr. G can share where the slides for class are posted”).
Now, after teaching for 24 years, I am pleased to admit that there are very few elements that I have not anticipated or need to change. This is mostly because if students want something that I am not already doing, there’s a good reason for it, and I share it with them. If there is no good reason why I don’t do it (e.g., have multiple practice exams), I can do it. My favorite comment from a recent 2×2FA was “Dr. G has this teaching thing down.” I’m down with that.
Providing students with an early opportunity to reflect on their work and my teaching is perhaps the single act that most makes me be an effective teacher. I have to constantly reflect on my craft. I am constantly monitoring their learning. In one fell swoop, the 2×2FA provides much to learn from. It makes me a better teacher. Try it, I think you will benefit from it too.
Soicher, R. N., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2017). Do exam wrappers increase metacognition and performance? A single course intervention. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 16(1), 64–73. https://doi-org/10.1177/1475725716661872
Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (3rd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
Regan A. R. Gurung, PhD, is associate vice provost and executive director for the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of psychological science at Oregon State University. Follow him on Twitter @ReganARGurung.