Picture yourself as an undergraduate student. Alright, maybe that was another time and place. But try to remember what it felt like to be a learner in a college environment, and give yourself the full sensory experience. Enjoy the feel of a desk under your arms, the sounds of typing in a lecture hall or pens scratching against paper in a lab. Relish in the heat of an early fall semester afternoon on the fourth floor of an academic building, or the chill of a February morning and a paper cup of coffee warming your hands.
Now, in that space, tug at the thread of memory you call learning. Where did the moments of greatest learning happen? What are the most deeply embedded lessons you brought with you into post-graduate studies and work? Who taught you in a way that set your neurons aflame? What did your most valuable learning experiences offer?
I sent myself out on this same mental journey in the weeks before my first semester as an adjunct instructor. I was teaching developmental college writing to freshmen at a local public college. I had a syllabus, a set of core course outcomes, a vague understanding of the course’s place in the college’s general education curriculum, and not much more. My own reflection was meant to guide the subject matter of the lectures I would deliver and the types of learning experiences I would offer. But what came out of the exercise was a recognition that all of the most important learning experiences of my own undergraduate career had involved two things: dialogue and feedback. I remembered visiting an instructor outside of class to hash out a sticky point in his lecture; or poring over the detailed feedback I received on a writing assignment and making edits to improve the final product; or raising my hand to say “I don’t understand” and hearing “Let me try to explain that another way” in return. It was the give and take, I realized, that I valued as a student.
When you as an instructor put yourself into a seat in your own classroom, it’s easy to see how constructive feedback can be. Your students need opportunities to answer questions, demonstrate knowledge, solve problems, and perform in a low-stakes environment, where the comments they receive are meant to inform their next steps and not evaluate. Your students are happy for the opportunity to hear your perspective and gain your knowledge, but it’s equally important for them to share their own prior knowledge, skills, and expertise. With your guidance, they want to better understand their own strengths and weaknesses. By the time they’ve received a grade, it’s often too late to guide them; by the time they’ve lost all motivation, it’s likely too late to check in and see how they’re feeling.
Enter: formative assessment. It’s through the techniques of formative assessment that instructors are able to give and solicit feedback with the sole purpose of improving student learning. And formative assessment is not only for the benefit of students. In my first semester as an instructor, I lost count of the number of classes I ended by asking “Does everyone understand?” to a sea of blank faces nodding “yes.” But in reviewing their answers to a quiz the next day, I could see clearly that they should have been vigorously shaking their heads “no.” And from the final exam months later, it was obvious that little had been retained, and only by a few students. Finally, when I received my summative course evaluation feedback a full semester later, I knew why. I was talking at them, not with them; I had presented them with exemplar writing but not a chance to critique; and they would have preferred more hands-on learning. How frustrating! If I could only get these learners back into the room.
Obviously, I couldn’t go back in time, so I decided to focus on the semesters that followed. Giving and getting feedback—early, often, consistently, and via multiple methods—became the process I needed. I was able to check in on student learning every class period, sometimes multiple times, and back up, revisit, or shift gears as quickly as my students and I needed. Sometimes I found that they knew more than I thought about a subject. What a happy day that was when I could move beyond the basics and challenge them a bit more. Occasionally, I would change the way I was used to delivering a lesson based on a better understanding of the students in the room and the way they liked to learn. Students developed at their own pace with multiple opportunities to be evaluated, including crucial moments of directed self- and peer-evaluation. And at the end of every class period, they answered my question—“Does everyone understand?”—honestly, and via an anonymous survey.
Feedback Techniques You Can Start Using Right Now
If you’ve considered incorporating formative assessment into your teaching, the good news is that it involves no Herculean effort and can be immediately impactful. Formative assessment can be brought in bit by bit. It is meant to complement the learning experience, not overwhelm it, so there is no need to completely overhaul your curriculum. Instead, consider trying one of these approaches in your next lesson and see where the data takes you:
Pre- and post-tests: Ask a predetermined set of questions aligned with the lesson’s outcomes at the beginning and end of the class. Use the pre-test results to inform your approach to the day’s lesson; use the post-test results to decide if and how to move forward in the next class.
Muddiest point: At the end of class, ask students to write one thing they’re unsure of before they walk out the door. Responses could be jotted on slips of paper, or sent to you electronically via an app like the Student Response System from Campus Labs.
Chunking: Divide a long lecture into 10- or 15-minute chunks and deliver a few questions to check in on student understanding of important concepts after each section. If the concepts are properly scaffolded, this will allow you to pause and re-explain if needed before you move on.
Group quiz: Deliver a pop quiz one question at a time via an online app, and display the results for students. Conduct group discussion around students’ thought processes as they considered each answer choice.
Word themes: Ask an open-ended question via an online app and create a word cloud to spot themes for discussion. This is a particularly valuable approach for building community in a group of students who are not familiar with one another and might appreciate knowing there are others in the room who think the way they do.
Multiple grading opportunities: Allow students to turn in an assignment as many times as they would like, so long as they meet with you or a tutor to discuss feedback and review areas for improvement. This approach allows you and students to see the development that can come when learning continues beyond the assigning of a grade.
One-sentence summary: Ask students to provide you with a one-sentence summary of what they’ve learned at the end of each class period.
Benchmark course evaluations: Why wait until the end of the semester to get feedback from students on what’s working in the classroom? Devise your own low-stakes course evaluation to administer at benchmarks throughout the course. Be sure to reflect on the importance of student feedback and let them know when you’re making changes based on what you’ve heard.
Self-assessment: Give students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and articulate strengths as well as areas for improvement.
No matter which approach you use, formative assessment can be a great way to support your efforts as an educator. By meeting students where they are, you’ll more clearly see their potential for learning—and elevate your own teaching in the process.
Emily-Rose Barry is Director, Campus Success, for Member Campuses in our south region. She provides high-level consulting on the value of campus-wide, data-oriented process improvements for institutions.